An important part of a university degree is the development of values and attributes that will contribute to society at large. When Mark Withington learnt of the opportunity to combine his passion for the piste with a way of helping men and women of the British Army who had been injured in conflict, he seized the chance. This is the story of Mark’s fundraising work with the charity Skiing with Heroes.
I studied Law at Hull between 1990-93. Whilst I can’t claim to have been the most committed student, my life at Hull University provided me with an amazing diverse circle of life long friends, an unparalleled tolerance to alcohol (since lost) and crucially an inner self belief to never be overawed by opportunities.
I stumbled across one such opportunity on Facebook 18 months ago when I saw an advert for Skiing With Heroes. Fuelled by adrenaline at the prospect of skiing with my heros Bode Miller, or following Lindsey Vonn or maybe Chemmy Alcott down a piste, I merrily clicked on the link. My shallowness was slightly embarrassing when I realised that Skiing With Heroes is a charity that helps wounded war veterans back to employment using skiing as part of a unique rehabilitation programme, for which you could apply to help an injured veteran on & off the slopes for a week, as a Ski Buddy.
I nearly bottled the application process at this point, as I’d never had any involvement with the military, or raised anywhere near the £1,500 fundraising target. Thankfully I didn’t and applying led to my most fulfilling experience and one that is continuing to date.
Having successfully made it through the selection process, I joined a team of 24 injured servicemen from the Iraq & Afghanistan conflicts, 25 Ski Buddies and a 15 strong team of medical support, committee members and most importantly dogs – these play a crucial role in helping with post traumatic stress disorder triggers.
The week away in Klosters during March 2015 was to coin an often over used phrase, an experience of a lifetime. The medically discharged veterans were a diverse group of insecure strangers at first who all carried with them mental and physical scars from conflict. Throughout the week I learned of numerous harrowing encounters and witnessed the daily struggle with disability, chronic pain management and most debilitating of all, the effects of mental illness known as PTSD.
Veterans volunteered to recount their struggles of returning to civilian life to the group on evening open sessions during the week. Hearing once successful military personnel talk of depression, suicide, breakdown of marriages, being house bound for years, having PTSD flashbacks in supermarkets and motorways, hearing the brutality they witnessed or suffered and struggling to find the correct medical and employment support to successfully reintegrate back in to society was gut wrenching. One of the guys I assisted during the week was a fellow law graduate, completed the LPC during the same period I had done so and was extremely successful in the military legal services, only to be left with severe PTSD and chronic pain following an incident that he was still unable to recount during his 2 deployment to Afghanistan.
Despite their daily battles, the veterans were an incredibly resilient bunch who’s confidence and humour enabled them to use skiing as a physical leveller and re-motivate themselves again via an adrenaline sport. SwH is ably supported by The Royal foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, the latter being a very vocal and visible advocate for using sport in veteran rehabilitation.
After the ski week, the hidden gem of the charity is revealed as the veterans then receive a year of mentoring to gently assist in rehabilitation back to employment. I actively stay in touch with the veterans I helped during the week and I am proud to say that they have become close friends. This continued contact and support network is crucial to people who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. A weekly text, email, Skype or joining them on a 1/2 marathon challenge are priceless and play an important part in the healing process.
The plight of returning injured service men and woman is often overlooked by society as a whole – from the medical profession to employers. Fortunately, following public support from Prince Harry and charities such as SwH, their voices are now starting to be heard. The TV presenter, Alex Polizzi, recently highlighted the battle back to employment faced by 4 medically discharged veterans on BBC 2, one of whom had been on Ski Week with SwH, all of which is helping raise awareness.
Injured Veterans have used the SwH programme to help transform their lives. Some have gone on to represent Team GB in the Paralympics and The Invictus Games. Others have managed to find employment, reintegrate back in to their family, or simply be able to cope with leaving the house, moving house or speaking in public. For most though, the daily pain and mental battle still continue, but the impact of injuries such as amputation, paralysis, blindness, suicidal tendancies and PTSD are being softened using skiing as a catalyst to rehabilitation back to employment and life in general. Predominantly, the network of contacts that SwH provides for veterans is paramount – from medical, social security benefits, funding, employment contacts to recent flood support. Previously isolated veterans are being empowered by a community of supporters that they were previsouly unaware existed or believed in their plight.
I’ve been invited to join one the SwH junior committee supporting the Ski Buddies and now produce a regular e-news, to promote long lasting relationships between volunteers, the charity and veterans. We all give our time for free to a cause for which we feel passionately, so If any alumni out there would like to offer any employment mentoring or any help at all to SwH in general, I would love to hear from you (email@example.com).
As well as the annual Ski Week, SwH run a 2 day Business Challenge in Klosters. Here teams of 4 made up from the business community participate in a number of races against each other and are joined by some hard core veteran teams. It’s a great networking event as well as an opportunity to see the rewards of the charity’s work, so if you fancy a team building and fundraising challenge please check out www.skiingwithheroes.com for more information.
Corporate Social Responsibility programmes play an important role in allowing employees to become involved in charities such as SwH. I would encourage all Alumini to utilise any CSR programme offered and if you’re an employer to implement such programmes in your business. The journey of people in our communities should not be underestimated, especially where invisible illnesses are concerned, not only PTSD, but all other mental illnesses that are not immediately visible.
Fundraising is equally as important as support for SwH as they have recently opened a pain management clinic at King Edward VII hospital London. If you would like to make a donation to SwH my just giving page is still open from last years trip, where I covered all of my own costs. The page achieved top 5% status for donations in 2014 so is well worth a look: https://www.justgiving.com/Mark-Withington or text MWSH99 £2,£5 or £10 to 70070. If all readers donated £1 this would help wounded war veterans immensely.
Since SwH started in October 2012, the charity has:
- Taken 75 injured veterans skiing. Some were blind, some were in wheelchairs, some suffering severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and some had never skied. All successfully completed the slalom race on the last day of their rehabilitation week, and by the end of the week those with PTSD were able to sit in a room full of people and engage with them – a huge step forward.
• Trained 50 mentors and are now in a position to offer mentoring to all our veterans, even including those who apply and are unable to come on the ski week.
• Started the annual Business Challenge ski race in Klosters – a successful fundraising event.
• Launched an employment programme.
• Taken 60 ski buddies of all ages to help the veterans on the ski week who raised funds and have increased awareness all over the UK.
• Held several fundraising events at Christie’s, 5 Hertford Street and an event in Monaco, amongst others. Our team also entered The Nightrider Bike Challenge.
.• Were the charity nominated by Conde Nast Traveller in 2014 and the Ultra Travel Awards in 2015.
• Started a new umbrella organisation to bring together other charities with a similar mission
SwH has raised over £700,000 with huge support that is rapidly expanding.
If you are interested in learning more or assisting SwH with their work, it would be great to hear from you, so please drop me an email Mark@kennethmorris.co.uk