Woman overcomes shyness to work for people with special needs and earns Yopey nomination

Nicola White from Bedford nominated for Yopey
Nicola White from Bedford nominated for Yopey

A young woman who overcame acute shyness and lack of confidence by volunteering to help young people with disabilities is in a competition that hails the ‘giving to others’ of Bedfordshire’s younger generation.

Nicola White was introduced to the Bedford Mencap summer playscheme when she was just a quiet 15-year-old and she hasn’t looked back since.

Nicola, now 23, has provided invaluable help and support to young people with physical and learning disabilities for the last eight years.

Shortly after joining the Mencap scheme, she also became involved with the Smiley Club, a weekly youth club for disabled young people and she continues to help both the playscheme and the club.

Now she been nominated for the Atlas Young People of the Year awards or ‘YOPEYs’, the Oscars for young people who ‘give to others’.

Nicola, of Tamworth Road, Bedford, was nominated by the Smiley Club leader Jeffrey Smith. He said: “Nicola was painfully shy and quiet when she was introduced to the Mencap summer scheme several years ago. In helping young people on a one-to-one basis she recognised that she had to get over her confidence issues. From being shy and nervous, Nicola has become an assertive and capable young woman who is always there to help.

“From a young volunteer she has come out of herself and become so invaluable that she is now a paid staff member at the summer scheme and a regular volunteer at the Smiley Club.

“She has become highly skilled in sign language along the way too and has picked up many skills and qualifications in this field.”

Swimming lessons, arts and crafts sessions, and day trips to local places, are some of the activities Nicola helps organise and run during the summer scheme.

Every week Nicola helps at the Smiley Club which is held at Pine Cones Family Centre in Slade Walk, Bedford. Here young people, aged between nine and 18 with learning and physical disabilities – some wheelchair users – gather to enjoy activities and catch up with friends.

Nicola, who works full-time as a senior learning support assistant at St John’s Special School and College in Bedford Road, Kempston, talks about how she first became a volunteer.

She said: “I was just a typical teenager until my grandmother convinced me to come down and help at the Mencap summer scheme.

“I was absolutely petrified but after spending a day helping, I knew it was for me. I saw how happy the kids became and I could see the difference I was making. I help organise trips and events for them and for me it is very rewarding.

“I work supporting children at St John’s too. We have just returned from a residential trip in Derbyshire for some of the young adults at the school. It was non-stop and intensive because all the students need constant support but it was fantastic and so rewarding.”

Nicola volunteered to go on the residential trip even though she would not have been paid extra to take part. The trip had a student teacher ratio of almost one to one and Nicola would have known that if she had not volunteered, the trip may not have gone ahead.

Nicola has big plans for the future. She hopes to start a degree in psychology later in the year with plans to train as an educational psychologist.

YOPEY has been praised by national leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron said YOPEY entries show determination and “resolve to make a difference”.

YOPEY was founded by former national newspaper journalist Tony Gearing, who said: “There are many young people in Bedfordshire doing wonderful things for others. It’s just that they live in the shadow of a well-publicised anti-social minority.

“We need to give young people the respect they deserve and set up the best as positive role models for others to copy rather than focusing on the small number who appear in the press for negative reasons.”

There is £2,000 to be won by young people and shared with good causes. There is a top prize of £800 to be won by a young person or group of young people who help others. The young person or group keeps £400 and invests the other £400 in a good cause of their choice. Second place will win £400, third and junior winners £200 each, all similarly shared.

Tony said: “It’s great to see Nicola overcome her shyness and lack of confidence and now make such a huge difference to so many disabled young people in Bedford.”

As well as Kempston-based Atlas Converting Equipment, which manufactures wrapping equipment for various industries, this year’s Beds YOPEY is sponsored by Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, Central Bedfordshire Council, and recruitment company Guidant Group.

An awards ceremony will be held at Cranfield University in the autumn.

The YOPEY charity has also received grants or donations from Bedfordshire & Luton Community Foundation, the county’s Police & Crime Commissioner, Bedfordshire Police Partnership, Aldwyck Housing and others.

# Entries have now closed for this year’s Beds YOPEY, but you can still submit entries, which will be saved until next year. To nominate visit yopey.org or write, enclosing a stamped-addressed-envelope, to YOPEY, Woodfarm Cottage, Bury Road, Stradishall, Newmarket, CB8 8YN, for a paper entry form.

Typical entries include fundraisers, young carers, club leaders, volunteers on projects at home or abroad and young leaders who pass on academic or sporting skills. YOPEY is always revealing new positive role models and the qualification for entry is easy – simply, the young person has to ‘give to others’.

YOPEY is open to young people aged from 10 to 25, who either live, work or study in Bedfordshire, but do not have to meet all three conditions.