North East celebrities Vick Hope and Baroness Tanni-Gray Thompson have come together to have honest conversations with injured veterans about overcoming extraordinary adversity and prejudice.
TV, radio presenter and BBC Strictly contestant 2018 Vick Hope from Heaton, Newcastle has had to battle racism and prejudice and struggle through the loss of her grandparents and a close friend as she grew up.
Whilst Tanni, Chancellor of Northumbria University, has conquered disability and prejudice from society to reach peak physical fitness and compete at an international level in a variety of sporting fields.
Together they are working with creative social enterprise the Drive Project, headed up by theatre producer Alice Driver, who was the first person in the United Kingdom to use arts to support the rehabilitation of veterans. Using this approach has changed the lives of veterans and given them a new focus delivering their inspiring story via theatres and schools to 50,000 children and young people across the UK.
Now the latest project sees injured veterans have inspiring conversations with celebrities as part of podcast series The Resilience Sessions to helps others going through difficult times. They have found that sharing their experience is the best way to help others tackle increasing pressures on mental health in the modern era.
“Knowing that you’re not alone is incredibly helpful and the more stories that are told, the more we’ll realise we’re all so gloriously different but actually we’re all really similar and have shared experience,” said Vick.
Vick’s mother moved from Nigeria to Newcastle and initially she had a tough start being the only mixed race child in her school.
“My biggest insecurity was my afro hair as the little girls at school told me I couldn’t play with them because of my frizzy hair. I wanted to look the same and once asked my mum to wash my brown colour off in the bath to look like everyone else,” she she said.
Vick applied to Cambridge University to study modern languages, as it ‘felt like a challenge when I was told I shouldn’t consider going there’. Her parents also had concerns about how she would cope at an elite institution.
During her studies, Vick worked as a local newspaper journalist but she had to cope with her first boyfriend passing away and, shortly after, she lost her grandparents. She blocked the pain out but two years later, in her final year at university, she became so overwhelmed that she sought the support of a counsellor.
“For a long time, I thought my mental health was a secondary priority and I kept sweeping things under the carpet,” she added. “Talking always makes things better but I still found it hard to open up and felt I was burdening my friends if I go to them with problems. But a series of lightbulb moments have helped, whether it’s inspiration from other people or practical help like counselling.
Veteran Shaun Stocker who is paired with Vick in the podcast joined the Royal First Battalion Welsh Fusiliers at 16 as an infantry soldier, but just six days from the end of a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED which caused traumatic injuries.
Meanwhile Tanni has become one of the UK’s most successful disabled sports people ever, winning 16 Paralympic medals at five Games. Born with spina bifida, she became an inspiration for disability and equal rights.
But the path to sporting success has not been easy and she has suffered setbacks and self-doubt, a journey which she wants to share.
“After the success of the Paralympics and London Marathons, and the resulting coverage, I think people were amazed and asked about my training and success, which feels good for 30 seconds, but it doesn’t change attitudes.”
Alongside her sporting achievements, campaigning for diversity and disability rights has been a focus for Tanni. She was also an integral part of the bid for the 2012 London Paralympics.
She is paired with former Army medic Nerys Pearce, who was left paralysed from the waist down after a motorbike accident which lead to isolation and depression. Her life was transformed after a ski trip with Blesma, the limbless veterans and she went on to compete in the Invictus Games and representing Wales in the 2018 Commonwealth Games for para powerlifting.
Both Tanni and Vick are part of a new arts project The Resilience Sessions which sees Veterans who’ve been injured and public figures come together to share their stories of the tragedies and obstacles they’ve faced and discuss how they’ve moved forward to lead happy and fulfilled lives.
Creator Alice said: “The Resilience Sessions podcast aims to create meaningful and inspiring conversations between two unlikely individuals, to talk about their experiences, careers, challenges and how they have handled resilience in their own lives, to act as an inspiration and support to those listening. We are using technology to connect veterans with others who have faced similar difficulties in life, to encourage their resilience against feelings of anxiety and poor self-esteem.
“The veterans are moving forward and re-framing their injury by having a positive impact and changing their lives. Technology is improving, merging and accelerating to enable conversations with mass audiences on an intimate level and The Resilience Sessions are testament to placing the human aspect at the core of this.”
In the first series, guests Carol Vorderman (North Wales), Jonny Benjamin, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Michael Caines, Vick Hope and Ray Winstone and veterans Simon Harmer, Stewart Harris (North Wales), Nerys Pearce, Mark Ormrod, Shaun Stocker (North Wales) and Ken Bellringer share their inner most thoughts and feelings about resilience and adversity, and how it has shaped them.
The idea for a podcast was born out of a conversation between Alice and military veteran Si Harmer of Hampshire, who came close to death after losing both his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2009.
He said: “During my rehabilitation in hospital, the days were busy with people coming and going, but at night it became a very lonely and sad place. I wanted to put in my headphones and listen to something positive that would give me a sliver of hope and be part of a positive conversation.”
The Resilience Sessions presented by Blesma, the limbless veterans charity, and based on an original idea by Simon Harmer and The Drive Project. The Resilience Sessions are supported by Openreach and produced by The Drive Project.
Ian Waller, Blesma Operations Director said: “Our Members’ inspirational stories of dealing with life-changing injuries are powerful examples of how crucial resilience is to recovery. The Resilience Sessions are designed to help people draw strength to face their own challenges and they clearly resonated with the personalities. Blesma is committed to supporting injured veterans to regain their independence and it is typical that they want to help others by talking about their experiences. We hope it will help promote resilience for listeners.”
Kevin Brady, Openreach HR Director said: “As one of the largest recruiters of ex-services personnel in the country, we know what an incredible contribution our veterans make to the Openreach workforce, helping to build and maintain the UK’s broadband network. These conversations demonstrate how much we can learn from them, especially about resilience and inner strength, which are vital skills. We are delighted to support these podcasts and encourage everyone to listen.”