WheelPower Volunteer Case Study - Reward & Recognition - Alan Soldini

My experience as a volunteer for WheelPower at Stoke Mandeville Stadium


In the beginning:

I first volunteered at Stoke Mandeville at the International Stoke Mandeville Games in 1974.  My employer sponsored the games and offered the opportunity to interested employees to volunteer for the week.  I was officially there to work on the reception/information desk because I spoke some French and German and it was thought that this might be useful.  When I got there I found that most of the teams from Europe spoke English so I didn’t need to practice my languages, but I didn’t realise until the teams started to arrive that there were literally hundreds of competitors, and they came from every continent, as the ISM Games were the equivalent in non-Olympic years of the Paralympics, so the information desk was always busy and I certainly felt that I made a useful contribution.

However, whatever volunteers’ official jobs were, we all tended to help out wherever needed, so my first job was putting up beds in a local school hall.  Because there was very little accommodation on site, with no Olympic Village and no Olympic lodge, just a few dorms in the huts, most of the participants were in makeshift dormitories in schools etc.  On the way to the school on that first day I thought I would be friendly and introduce myself to the man sitting next to me on the minibus.  The conversation took an unanticipated turn when I innocently asked what he did for a living when he wasn’t making beds.  The answer of “generally I make mailbags” made sense when he explained that he was part of a working party from Springhill prison!

I was soon to learn that there was also a police presence, but they weren’t there to keep an eye on the prison working party.  October 1973 had seen the Yom Kippur War between a coalition of Arab states and Israel, and the massacre of 11 Israelis in Munich during the 1972 summer Olympics meant that the Israeli team at ISMG had accommodation offsite and isolated from all other teams, and also that armed special branch officers were present throughout the games to provide security for the Israelis.  But at those games in July 1974, less than a year after the war, I watched Egypt play Israel at basketball, with both teams following the tradition of swapping badges and other gifts – each knowing that some members of both teams had fought against each other, and I believe some of the badges commemorated this.  South Africa sent a team that included both black and white members, although there was an international boycott of South Africa in all other sports because of their apartheid policy.  This caused considerable controversy over the years, and they were eventually banned from ISMG in 1985 due to political pressure.

Having spent a week in an environment where everyone was treated equally regardless of whether they used a wheelchair or not, where black and white South Africans spoke to each other, where Israel and Egypt could compete against one another instead of shooting at each other, and “cops and robbers” rubbed shoulders over lunch, it is hardly surprising that when Sir Ludwig Guttmann asked whether I would return, the answer was an unequivocal “yes”.

Back then, it wasn’t only the Olympic Village and Lodge for accommodation that were missing.  The sports hall was half its current size, there were no tennis courts and no bowls centre.  But most significantly, there was no athletics track.  Wheelchair users weren’t expected to be able to push more than a couple of hundred meters in a race, which was fair enough because there were no special sports chairs, so they competed in their day chairs.  And the day chairs were primitive by today’s standards, old-fashioned “sit up beg” models that seemed to weigh a ton.  So, the “track” was a 60-metre stretch of more or less flat tarmac across what is now the car park, with a drop of about five feet a few meters after the finish line!  But apart from the short distances, and overall much lower performance standards than today’s Paralympians achieve, the competition included many of the wheelchair sports that we are all familiar with, so there was plenty to entertain the volunteers if we got a break from work.  The one time we were guaranteed a break was in the evenings, and the evenings meant the beer tent!!!  There was a huge marquee roughly where the tennis courts and overflow car park stand today, and it was manned by an army of volunteers from the now-defunct Supporters’ Club.  Like international sportsmen the world over, most of the competitors trained hard for months building up to their competition, but, once their event was over, they would let their hair down and so the beer tent got progressively busier as the week went on.  Over the next few years the social life of the beer tent was supplemented by some regular parties to which the privileged few, like team managers and officials and, most importantly from my viewpoint, reception staff, were always invited.  Thursday evenings, the Jordanian Embassy put on a reception for the Jordanian team and their guests.  On Friday evenings, at the start of their sabbath, the Israeli team would celebrate Kiddush, and this was followed by a party sponsored by a Jewish group from London (I think) that went on late into the night.  Saturday was the last day of the games and the Australian team would raid the local butchers and off licence and put on a “barbie”.  Before they were banned, the South Africans displayed their traditional rivalry with the Aussies, so instead of the Aussie barbie, in alternate years we would be treated to a South African “braai”.  There were always some sore heads on Sunday mornings when the teams boarded their busses to take them to the airport.

The next twenty years:

For the next twenty years or so I returned to Stoke Mandeville for a week – actually, it was normally Saturday morning through to the following Sunday evening – every year except Olympic years when the Paralympics were usually held in the Olympic host country for that year.  New facilities were built, and the performance levels at the Games at Stoke Mandeville rose.  But this also meant that more and more sports developed their own world championships and limited funding meant that teams often had to choose which competitions to enter.  As the Paralympic movement grew, Stoke Mandeville began to be overshadowed.

However, this was temporarily reversed in 1984 when the games were scheduled to be held in the USA, as the Olympics were in Los Angeles.  At that time, the Paralympics were not typically held in the Olympic host city, and certainly didn’t use the same facilities.  In 1984, the wheelchair events were planned to be in Champaign, Illinois, while the events for other disabilities were held in New York, under the auspices of a separate organisation.  But with only four months’ notice, the organisers of the Champaign games pulled out and the Stoke Mandeville team that regularly ran games for three years out of four had to get all hands to the pumps and put on a bigger event than any of them had ever contemplated.  As a volunteer, though, it was just like all the others I had been at, except much, much bigger.  A few years later, I was queueing to get into my local swimming pool in East Grinstead, wearing a t-shirt from the 1984 games, when an Australian accent from behind the desk said “Were you at Stoke Mandeville in ’84?  I was team manager with the team from Papua New Guinea!”

1993 saw another change.  As well as the regular ISMG games, Stoke Mandeville also hosted Challenge 93 which was organised by British Ex-Forces Wheelchair Sports Association (BEWSA) for disabled ex-service men and women from several countries.  It was a forerunner of the Invictus Games and was opened by the late King Hussein of Jordan, but didn’t have the regular patronage of anyone with the stature and enthusiasm of Prince Harry, so although the 1993 games were a success, and there were a couple similar events in the next few years, they didn’t catch on.

The turn of the century saw massive changes in the volunteering opportunities at Stoke Mandeville for those who want to get really stuck in for days at a time, being fully involved in delivering sporting events, rather than doing a few hours a week in an office to support those the events.  Both types of volunteer are valuable, of course, and suit different individuals, but I personally enjoy the hands-on stuff, where I get to meet the people who benefit from the chance to take part in wheelchair sports.  The first change was that the last international games took place in 1998; the second was the temporary closure and refurbishment of the stadium.  As mentioned earlier, the international games had really outgrown the facilities at Stoke and had been superseded in many sports by individual world championship competitions.  1998 was classed as a “development” games, for up-and-coming athletes who hadn’t yet taken part in Paralympics but Stoke hasn’t seen this type of event since then.  So, since 1999, my volunteering has been confined to domestic games – the Inter Spinal Unit Games (ISUG) which are held every April, and the National Junior Games (NJG) every September/October, and for a few years the National Games, which are no longer held as a multisport meeting.  Just as with the internationals, the explosive growth in numbers of people taking part has meant that the focus has switched to national championships for each sport.  The NJG were temporarily relocated to Reading and the National Games to Cardiff while the Stadium was out of action, but the NJG and ISUG are still going strong. 

In many ways, this has made my volunteering even more enjoyable that it was for the first 25 years, when I was only involved in international quasi-Paralympic events.  ISUG sees around 100 participants every year, all of whom have suffered spinal injury within the past 12 months, so all are coming to terms with their disabilities.  Their attitude is typically very similar to the guys I used to meet at the Internationals in the 1970s and ‘80s – they work hard and do their best at whatever sport(s) they choose, but also play hard and make friends and build social contacts in the bar afterwards.   It is sobering to realise just how many people suffer traumatic spinal injury every year, but it is heartening to see how many are far less severely paralysed than used to be the case, due to improved first aid and medical techniques and treatments.  And, of course, it is fantastic meeting such inspiring people and making new friends.   It isn’t unusual to see some of the participants are visibly happier and stronger at the end of the four-day games than they were at the start; they smile more easily, they are obviously more confident, and often actually sit higher in their chairs.  It’s a privilege to think that I might have played a small part in making that happen, whether it’s from helping organise the event in general, or coaching in one or more sports – I’ve always been happy to turn my hand to anything that needs doing to make the event a success.


Why the National Junior Games are so inspiring…

The people at NJG are totally different.  This event is for children aged 11 to 18, and although some do use wheelchairs as a result of spinal injury, most have never been able to walk, or have always known that a progressive condition would slowly rob them of this ability.  So, the whole atmosphere is completely different from ISUG.  Where the people at ISUG are getting used to their new life as wheelchair users, the kids at NJG have had their whole lives to accept their condition, but we give them a chance to compete on equal terms with other kids with similar disabilities.  Some of them can rarely do this, especially those in mainstream schools where they might be the only wheelchair user.  For the past 15 years or so, apart from generally helping with whatever needs doing, I have been responsible for running Zone Hockey at NJG.  This is a highly inclusive game which allows people with many levels of disability to play together as a team and it is extremely popular with the children as well as with the teachers and parents who come with them.  It is also popular with an even younger age group when I run it at the one-day Primary Sports Camps that are held a few times a year at Stoke Mandeville and occasionally other venues around the country.  Again, it is a great feeling to think that I help the kids learn how to be part of a team, to win or to lose with dignity, and above all, to have fun.

Why volunteering for WheelPower is worth it…

So, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the 45 years I’ve been involved, but the job satisfaction is still the same.  It comes from seeing the happiness, confidence and strength that sport can bring to wheelchair users.  That’s why I prefer the type of volunteering I do - the concentrated hands-on, get-stuck-in-for-a-week, get-home-exhausted type, rather than fund-raising, or doing mailshots, or giving talks.  I did serve as a trustee on the board for six years, so I do have experience of being more of a “back room” volunteer but, important as the trustee role is, for me that’s not a patch on seeing the smile on the face of someone at ISUG when they find out how much they can still do after they have spent six months or so being highly aware of what they haven’t been able to do, or watching the Paralympics on TV and thinking “I remember him/her when they were only 12 years old and enjoying playing Zone Hockey with their mates.”

‘We would like to thank Alan for all his support over the years - you’re doing a tremendous job Alan! You are a WheelPower Superstar! You deserve the recognition!’

If you or a friend has volunteered for WheelPower in the past or present time, please do get in touch, we’d love to cover your story, give you the recognition you deserve and show how your hard work has helped a countless number of wheelchair users lead more active and healthier lives! Email press@wheelpower.org.uk