Phenomenal; a word I save for only exceptional use. But there really is no other way to describe this weeks charity.
Help for Heroes is one of those success stories we all know. Rising to huge brand recognition in only a few short years after pledging to support the wounded military whilst out serving our country; they have become the beacon for young charity growth across the UK. There isn’t a brand in this country that doesn’t admire and slightly envy what they have managed to achieve, and just like their servicemen who survive horrific ordeals, they should be proud. Very proud.
Driving into the humble industrial estate in Sailsbury it took me back to my days at global superbrand SuperDry. Another astonishing success story that rose from nothing after an incredible string of great media and compelling fashion offers. I felt right at home.
The vibe on site is electric. I can’t explain to you the type of energy I experienced at the charity. But what I came to discover of the 4 days with them is that it’s their people that make it what it is.
I often get asked about company culture and how one fosters it. I always say that it’s driven from the top. It’s about getting a great leader who inspires others. But something I’ve come to learn is that it’s something you can’t bottle. Because if they could, I would guarantee every single charity from here to Timbuktu would be lined up to get a bottle of what H4H have.
I was however, apprehensive about my week with Help for Heroes and not just the 50-mile cycle ride I had agreed to 3 weeks before. But, because of their high profile. There is such a divide of public opinion towards the charity that I didn’t really know what was fact and what was fiction. So like every other charity before them, I reserved my own opinion and went in with an open mind.
For all those with indifferent opinion out there, I ask you to go spend 2 hours at the Tin Hut, where Help for Heroes started and make good luck phone calls to every single person holding an event for them . You then come back and tell me that you hate the charity, because I guarantee you won’t.
Within minutes of walking through the doors to their head office I was greeted by Jill, whom I have been conversing with for the past few weeks about the impending Hero Ride and my buddy for my visit.
Well, what a welcome it was; hugs and hi-fives galore, a great start to my 4 days. I was whisked upstairs and swarmed by masses of people all saying ‘hi’ and welcoming me to Help for Heroes. I know now that this was only a taste of what was to come. Every single person was bursting with energy and excitement from PA’s to heads of department.
I spent my first day being ushered around the site meeting people from every single department. I have to admit Bryn & Emma Parry (H4H founders) were smart cookies when they founded the charity. As well as registering H4H as a charity they also started a commercial business, under the same name, as a registered for-profit. Their aim was to use this to sell merchandise to support the charity, and boy, was that a smart move. Help for Heroes is split into two; the charity and the commercial, each interlinked but operating at a slightly separate level. This allows them to give more percentage per pound donated to the causes that need the money, not spent on other ‘admin’ costs.
Overwhelmed and slightly anxious for my ever-closer bike ride, I headed back to the hotel for an exciting day at Tedworth House, The Recovery Centre.
Only ever wanting to build a swimming pool, Bryn & Emma’s vision of helping the wounded has grown beyond all expectations. Tedworth house, one of their 4 recovery centres is testament to that. A stunningly beautiful stately home nestled into the Sailsbury countryside; they rent the building from the MoD. It stands magnificent in all it’s grandeur and is a stark contrast to what the veterans are used to in the battlefield.
I, quite frankly, have never experienced anything like it. State of the art facilities and a team of dedicated staff; they cater to every single need for wounded military personnel, both physical and mental. And contrary to popular myth, Tedworth house is open to anyone who has served, pre and post 2001.
What amazed me most was the engagement that Help for Heroes has with other brands. They currently rank number 3 on the charity brand index and despite what you all believe; their current turnover last year was only around £30million. A far cry from the charities only slightly above them who rose in excess of £500m each. But, because of their brand presence, everyone wants a slice of the action. From the million pound gym sponsored by GSK to the first class airport cabin installed in a sensory room by British Airways, it was astounding.
I then headed over to the Tin Hut, where the charity started.
As you walk through the door you are greeted by the lovely receptionist with a happy smile and a big hug. Then it hits you. The walls and ceiling plastered with posters, photos and cheques. I have never seen anything like it.
Out pop’s Sheona and instantly offers cake, tea or an ice cream (A regular donation made by a volunteer, she keeps the fridge and freezer stocked).
I can’t quite explain what I felt when I was there, too much emotion to process for one quick stop but what I can say is that every single person I met was inspirational. Every single person had an amazing story for why they were there and spending a few hours with a cuppa in my hand and listening to them overwhelmed me so much I cried on my way home to my hotel.
If I am honest I think the icing on the cake was my hour spent making ‘good luck’ phone calls to people who were holding events. One in particular will always stay with me.
I phone a guy called James; he was holding a raffle at a wedding. As I wished him luck and a nice time he told me it was his wedding to his long-term girlfriend. He has just come back from serving 2 years in Afghanistan and finally got the chance to get down on one knee. I of course congratulated him and as I did, he burst into tears. So touched by a simple call from the charity to say hello and congratulations he broke down on the phone. This was his icing on a lovely wedding cake.
And that’s just it. Help for Heroes don’t call you to ask for a regular donation or more money. They call you to say “Hey; good luck today, we hope you have an amazing time.”No mention of money, no mention of fundraising; just a simple and honest hello. That is where they get it right. That, is why they have been so damn successful.
Then the morning arrived, bleary eyed and slightly over-excited, Jill and I joined the 45 other riders at Tedworth house for our 2 day bike trek across the countryside to Windsor. And boy oh boy am I glad I trained. The first day pushed me to my wall. A total of 57 miles up and down hills was harder than I imagined. But, everyone was so incredibly supportive that there was no way I was stopping. 45 miles in with 12 more to go I thought I hit my wall. My legs hurt, I could hardly sit down and I felt like crying. But Shane, one of the riders from Andy Cook cyclists who was assisting the ride set my pace and got me to the end.
I arrived in last place, but to a hoard of cheers. It didn’t matter how long it took me the fact was, I finished.
I woke up at 4am on Sunday morning ready to set off at 4:45. We had 70 miles to cover and had to be in Windsor at 10.30. We all looked at each other in agony as we sat our bums down on our bike seats and all cycled off together, riding the pain. By 8:00am I had reached the foot of Box Hill. An Olympic cycle route up a notoriously hard hill; 3 miles of uphill to be precise, I clicked into my lowest gear and set my pace.
It took me 45 minutes to reach the top, but I didn’t stop once.
That was it for me. 75 miles, 25 more than my original pledge and I threw in the towel, I knew that was my limit. I was 40 miles from Windsor and there was no way I would have made it in time. So we made the decision for me to help on water stops. And a wise one to be honest.
But you know what kept me going for those 75 miles?
The veteran on a hand bike who had only 1 limb because the other 3 had been amputated after an IED went off whilst he was out serving. A man who despite all the pain, hand cycled his way from Sailsbury to Windsor. That is why the Hero Ride is incredible.
Over 1000 cyclists gathered in Englefield green to ride the procession into Windsor Racecourse. A memory I will treasure for the rest of my life. Cycling with 1000 other people through closed roads through Windsor has to be the most ‘hair-stand-on-end’ feeling I’ve ever had. Hundreds upon hundreds of people cheering, clapping, whopping and congratulating us on our achievement. And an achievement it was, for everyone. Put it this way – I had such a great time i am just about to sign up for the same ride next year. So Jill – watch out, bring on Hero Ride 2016!
I walk away from Help for Heroes converted. A phenomenal charity run by and supporting phenomenal people. And dare I say it, a benchmark for all the other NJIB charities on my list.
I will now spend my week resting and reflecting as I have my first weeks holiday!
It’s also a very special point in my Nicest Job journey as it’s the half way mark. What a way to end the most incredible 6 months of my life and here is to the next – let’s make them even better!