Imagine not being to tell where your arm is without looking. Imagine not being able to judge what it’s appropriate to say out loud and what thoughts you should keep to yourself. Imagine having to reconstruct your life around the fact that your personality has been reshaped. These thoughts are terrifying, and are part of the reason why I’ve recently become a trustee at Headway East London.
Headway is a charity that exists to support people who have been affected by brain injury. At its centre on the Kingsland Road, dozens of people who have brain injuries come in every day to get help in living their lives around the fact that their brains have been irreversibly changed. They receive occupational and physical therapy. They get counselling and advice on benefits. They also get a chance to do things they enjoy, like making art, cooking and working on writing projects, alongside staff and volunteers.
It’s not a glamorous cause – it isn’t ill children or sad donkeys, so fundraising is hard. Many Headway members have been badly affected by changes to benefits for disabled people. And it’s not a uniform problem, either, making it difficult to raise public awareness. Brain injuries manifest themselves in different ways for everyone – brains are so beautifully complex that damage in one place will have very different effects than another, so there’s no single easy message to give the public about what the problem is.
Headway could easily be a depressing place – none of the members are going to get better, as such. Your brain can’t heal itself the way that bones and muscles can. But the centre has a purposeful and cheerful feel. When you walk in, you almost always get offered a cup of tea. And it’s not usually obvious whether the person who is welcoming you and putting the kettle on is a member, a volunteer or a member of staff. When you pop in, there’s usually jam or craft work for sale – at our trustees’ meeting last week, I bought the jar of marmalade made by members, pictured above. If I visit at lunchtime, I buy a hot meal, cooked by members alongside a couple of staff-members, and everyone who’s at the centre that day eats together at round tables. Eating together isn’t compulsory, but the food is tasty, cheap and healthy, and so almost everyone does.
I wanted to get involved with the charity because of that feeling – the sense that, against the odds, staff and members were working together to make the best of things. I also like the resourceful and entrepreneurial approach the organisation takes to making projects happen and raising money – I thought I might be able to make myself helpful with those things, given my experiences elsewhere. And, because I ride a bike every day, and because I know people who have suffered brain injuries from doing so, I felt a personal link to the problem.
I’d recommend being a trustee of a charity to anyone. It’s a good way to make a difference – it’s crucial for charities to have a mix of people, with different experience and skills, to oversee decisions that are being made and to steer the organisation’s direction. I think almost anyone, from any background, could find a role where they could make themselves really useful. And as a trustee, I find it extremely interesting to be able to use my professional skills in a different context from normal, and to be involved in the discussion around all the issues a medium-sized organsation faces.
I’d also recommend supporting Headway East London in particular. They’re doing fantastic work on a minimal budget, for people who really need it. Without the centre to come to, many members would barely leave their houses, and the meal they have at the centre is often the best one they get all week. Like Headway on Facebook or follow on Twitter, and you’ll hear about chances to get involved. Or go along and ask if you can buy a jar of marmalade. It’s delicious, and there still a few jars left.