Every Thursday morning, a group of local people from all walks of life come together, talking and sharing laughter, against the scenic backdrop of Enniskillen Castle and the banks of Lough Erne in Fermanagh. This group walks the path to recovery together - led by a team of committed staff and volunteers from local charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS).
The charity’s Walking Groups meet this way each week, in parks and towns right across Northern Ireland, providing a place for local people affected by chest, heart or stroke illnesses to walk together and exercise, improving their mobility and confidence week by week, under the expert care and supervision of the charity’s co-ordinators.
This Volunteers Week (1st to 6th June), NICHS are highlighting the vital importance of volunteers in providing the charity’s life-changing services for people affected by chest, heart and stroke illnesses in local communities across Northern Ireland, like their Walking Groups.
The charity delivers a range of programmes across the country including its Walking Groups, monthly Wellness Sessions, Breathing Better Services for patients with respiratory conditions, and its Heart Strong Online Programme for those living with a heart condition. The charity also delivers its Post Rehab Exercise Programme (PREP) across all five trusts, a service which provides additional support for stroke survivors after their statutory rehab has ended through a combination of education and physio-developed exercises.
Norma Ferguson, is one of NICHS’s Care Services Co-ordinators who facilitates the charity’s programmes in the Fermanagh and Omagh area, supported by of a number of dedicated local volunteers, including Michelle Starkey, 52, Valerie Kernaghan, 46, and Diane Gow, 53.
Michelle has been volunteering with the charity for over 16 years. As such a long-standing volunteer, Michelle has completed a variety of training programmes through the charity, as well as receiving long service awards for her dedication.
Michelle says, “I used to work as a self-employed hairdresser, but I never took any bookings on the mornings when the programmes were happening as volunteering with NICHS has always been so important to me. It’s a real passion and vocation, and very rewarding. You can see the progress in the clients, both in their confidence and physical progression, when they are able to walk further week by week, it’s just brilliant to see. It’s also rewarding to know it means a lot to the families and the clients - they really appreciate the support and care.”
“You get to know everyone, about how they’re getting on and their struggles with their stroke and you really care, and it’s great to be able to play a part in helping them. And, it really is fun volunteering with NICHS - we have great craic.”
Valerie Kernaghan had previously worked as a youth worker and started volunteering for NICHS during a career break. She has now been volunteering for over five years. Valerie says, “One of the best parts for me is the good craic you have with the clients. It’s really good fun and there’s great comradery getting to know everyone.”
“When I started volunteering, it was a good way to get out of the house, socialising and meeting new people. It gives you purpose. One week at PREP, we were all nearly in tears as one man who had struggled to walk unaided came in walking on crutches for us to see. I’ve also learned a lot through volunteering, going from working with young people to working with stroke clients. And it helps when you’re such good friends with the people you work with – Norma and us volunteers, we are a really gelled team and that also helps put the clients at ease.”
Diane Gow from Church Hill was a former civil servant and began volunteering after she retired. She says, “The role helping out at the PREP programme was great for me as I come from a background in fitness. We’re there helping the clients who’ve had a stroke through the circuit exercises each week and recording their progress and encouraging them. Seeing how much the programmes help people and how far they can come, both physically and mentally, in the space of a few weeks with NI Chest Heart and Stroke’s support is amazing.”
Norma Ferguson, Care Services Co-ordinator for NICHS adds, “Michelle, Valerie and Diane are fantastic assets to the charity and bring so much to the groups. Having them there really helps to put the clients at ease, and without reliable and friendly volunteers like them, the programmes and the groups just couldn’t run in the same way. As the pandemic has ended, many of our volunteering opportunities have been left vacant as we’ve returned to delivering our services in the community face to face, so we feel extremely lucky to have such amazing volunteer support here in the Enniskillen groups.”
For more information about volunteering for Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke contact, 028 9032 0184. To find out more about the charity’s care and support services visit, https://nichs.org.uk/our-support-services.