By Margaret Hillyer, D of E Co-ordinator, Northampton Town Multi Disabled Football Club
It all started for Northampton Town's multi-disabled Football Club back in December 2008 when a new partnership with the Football league Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh Award was formed.
The group was born from the multi-disabled football section of the club and a one-year pilot scheme was launched. Five years later, the majority of the group remain together and they have completed their bronze, silver and gold Duke of Edinburgh awards. This is their story.
The bronze award kicked-off with the skills section on Sports Appreciation. The participants were tasked with producing a booklet on their favourite football team and each person was challenged fully in this computer-based activity. In the physical section, these crazy Cobblers fans played football, before volunteering in the Early Birds sessions, where they helped with coaching.
The next difficult task was to plan for the expeditions as the group learnt about walking, reading maps and being independent. Thrown completely out of their comfort zone, the individuals took everything in their stride, navigating their way beside the River Nene while taking photographs.
Upon reaching camp, tents were soon up, dinner was cooked and eaten and bed beckoned for a 5:30am start the next day. These boys certainly weren't laying in on a Sunday - unusual for teenagers! Tents were soon packed away and day two of the journey had begun, again along the River Nene and finishing at Doddington.
For a team who suffer from some very difficult physical conditions, 12 miles under their belts in two days was an amazing effort and the bronze programme was complete. This was supposed to be the end of the story, but the group had other ideas, instantly asking, 'where are we going for our Silver Expedition?'
This was a big commitment, but the boys were determined, so the planning for round two began.
Meanwhile, word of the bronze achievement was spreading around the national football community, leading to an email asking if one of the participants would make a speech at St. James' Palace. Michael, who had took part, spoke from the heart about the way the award had enriched and changed his life, with his boyish looks and comments leaving us all in tears.
This moment will stay with Michael for the rest of his life; someone who had never travelled to London before and the idea of public speaking was so far from the life he knew, yet he did himself proud and stole the show. His speech was then taken to the county presentations, and for a young man who was so close to exclusion from his school, he showed he is a true leader and a gentleman.
The silver award was definitely a step up, and the schedule involved the local community when the group worked on their service section. Using old Northampton Town programmes, they produced birthday cards and place mats, later adding key rings to the collection and selling them at Sixfields on match day.
Struggling to keep up with demand, the local 'Extra Care Village' was also involved with cutting pictures out of the programmes. One evening, the two groups teamed-up and created a production line of cards and mats over tea and cakes. The combined forces raised £500 to purchase a charity shelter box which was sent to the Haiti Disaster Fund.
Word was continuing to spread of the group's work and they were invited to Buckingham Palace to showcase their work to Duke of Edinburgh supporters. What a day that was, meeting many high-profile people and not to forget a prince!
Expedition season was soon upon us and this meant a trip to both the west coast and Wales for the practice, and then the disused railway line of the High Peak Trail in Derbyshire for assessment. Whilst on the assessed expedition, devastating news hit the group - funding had been stopped and the group had no money to continue with the programme. I had spent the last two years seeing this group grow and become independent, so we were determined to continue.
Through support from local grants, companies and the Rotary Club, the group thrived and 18 months later they had completed the silver award. Gold was in our sights.
The final challenge was difficult in so many ways, particularly as there was an extra section to cover. Our funding was still lost but we didn't let this get in our way.
One task saw the group draw a huge Northampton Club badge and paint it, which is now in pride of place in the Athletics Stadium next to Sixfields, where a smaller version hangs in Carr's Bar, the supporters bar.
Most of the group then attended a residential at Norfolk fire station, and they really did turn into junior fire fighters. Being away from home for a whole week was challenging for the boys as they learnt so many skills, but they all came back so excited from their new experiences.
Finally, the four-day expedition took them along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast line. They were completely self-sufficient, proving they had come such a long way. Walking towards the finish, heads were held high, smiles proudly beaming across their faces, and the group had completed their gold award.
Five years later, in September 2013, the lads attended St. James' Palace to collect their well-deserved awards.
Thank you so much to everyone who helped them along the way, either with grants, materials, moral support or time.