IT all started with a bike ride that Bryn Parry, a fieldsports cartoonist, and his wife Emma planned in 2007 to raise money to improve the treatment of the wounded coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. By October of that year Help for Heroes (H4H) was born and named. It is possibly the fastest growing charity of all time, a phenomenon.
H4H has evidently struck a chord that people throughout the nation have been waiting to hear. Having set out to raise half a million pounds, H4H had raised £6 million by 1 June 2008. On its second anniversary, 1 October last year, funds had passed the £30 million mark.
“What we need is a swimming pool at Headley Court,” General Sir Richard Dannatt had said when asked to name a “single, simple task” for the yet unborn charity (Headley Court is where the wounded go for rehabilitation after treatment at Selly Oak, the NHS hospital in Birmingham). Two years later, thanks to H4H and the wonderful support it has conjured up across the whole country, Headley Court will have a 25-metre, five-lane, Olympic-standard pool with, in addition, two gymnasia due to open this coming June.
So the story goes on, hand-in-hand, rather than in competition with other service charities, for example SSAFA Forces Help and Combat Stress, to which Help For Heroes has made significant grants for specific projects. It has set itself the task of providing direct, practical support for the “current wounded”. “It’s about the blokes”, and “Do your bit for the wounded”, are two of its favourite slogans. Its other battle cry is that it is strictly non-political and non-critical.
The charity was soon making useful friends and forming valuable alliances. Jeremy Clarkson and his wife Francie, the daughter of a VC, had been regular visitors to Selly Oak. They lent the pull of celebrity to the cause, becoming founder patrons. Princes Harry and William weighed in, organising a very successful fund-raising event, “City Salute”, outside St Paul’s Cathedral in May 2008. The press came on board in a big way.
Momentum gathered. But from the start, no doubt due in part to Bryn Parry’s outdoor interests and connections through his work as a cartoonist, H4H has had a special message for country people. Events were and still are being arranged everywhere, literally in thousands. Hunts collected caps, shoots had whip-rounds, beaters contributed their day’s pay. Donations poured in.
The H4H Trading Company, based at the former offices of Bryn Parry Studios at Downton, south of Salisbury, is now run by Emma Parry and generates enough income to cover all but a tiny percentage of H4H‘s overheads, salaries and rent. So virtually every penny given by the public goes where it is needed and where the donors intend.
Mark Elliott, an ex-Grenadier and another countryman, is Bryn Parry’s right-hand man. Like his boss, Mark had his own busy life before H4H hijacked it. How he founded the National Organisation of Beaters and Pickers Up (NOBs) is a story in itself, suffice it to say that the name tells you what he did before co-ordinating H4H‘s fund-raising.
His office, once an empty, rent-free tin shed at Tidworth, is now busy, spick-and-span, and is where a team of paid staff and volunteers takes calls offering help and donations. Mark put me in touch with some of the people who have risen to the challenge and made H4H the success it has become.
Richard Lupton, a TA major and keen shooting man, who lives in the Blackdown Hills, is one of more than 60 volunteers who work as county co-ordinators for H4H, his patch being Somerset. He has been in from the start, took part in the original bike ride, raised over £7,000 in 2008, and over £4,000 in 2009.
“There are lots of things going on,” he told me. “We’ve had tug of war competitions at pubs, quiz nights, the list is endless. The great thing is that so many people want to help and organise things off their own bats. I just help and advise where needed. H4H seems to bring out the best in people. It is so uplifting to see how generous people are for our wounded.
“One of the first events we covered was the Taunton Vale Foxhounds point-to-point last March. They dedicated a race to H4H, which raised about £2,500. The Taunton Flower Show, a really big draw, also adopted it as its charity last year. At the other extreme, a school in Chard raised over £100 baking cakes,” he added.
By way of contrast, the Birmingham H4H Ball, the annual event formally known as the Birmingham Poppy Ball, raised £125,000, hosted on very generous terms by the Hilton Metropole Hotel, in November 2008. The event was organised by Sue Sanders, who lives at Stratford-upon-Avon but spends a part of every year in New Zealand. “I will do the ball, I don’t need any input from you guys,” this busy lady told Bryn. “I wanted to do something for the lads coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. The ball was attended by about 700 people, and
tickets were £95 (all found). It would seem that Warwickshire is very much alive to what goes on at Selly Oak.
Another first, the Norfolk Dog Day, was held at Sennowe Park last August. “We had hundreds of dogs there, and a wonderful turnout of dog-minded people,” Sara Lock, the Norfolk H4H co-ordinator told me. “The president of the committee was Phyllis, General Sir Richard Dannatt’s black labrador. But the show was the brainchild of Fee Sharples, a soldier’s wife, who did the organising. We were hoping to raise £2,500 but in fact raised over £80,000. Throwing myself into something like H4H has been part of rebuilding myself,” said Sara, who was recently widowed.
One morning I rode round to meet Di Emmings, the Help for Heroes rep here in Dorset, and learnt how she and her husband Robin, a retired accountant, got caught up in H4H. “You have to have the family fully on board if you work for H4H as it takes over your life – and your house. Our spare bedroom is full of Bryn’s merchandise,” she said.
“We used to live near Leatherhead in Surrey. Headley Court was familiar to me: my son, a Royal Marine lieutenant-colonel, had a knee injury treated there. I was horrified to learn that parents at the local swimming bath were objecting to their children sharing the pool with
service amputees. I was determined to do some-thing about it.”
From there it was a short trip to her getting caught up, heart and soul, in H4H. I learnt of recent and planned fund-raising in Dorset, of £2,000 collected in a garden gazebo set up by a local enthusiast at Sturminster Newton Cheese Fair; of a re-enactment of The Great Escape, planned for later this year by 40 gaol warders, 10 teams of four, getting themselves from Dartmoor to Portland, sponsored, and collecting all the way; of schoolchildren raising money by cleaning their teachers’ cars; sponsored skydiving, walking or swimming. “One little chap at Seals, the Sherborne School swimming club, was sponsored to swim six lengths, but impoverished his proud grand-father by swimming 40 lengths,” said Di.
Di rang me later that evening to say that she had taken two calls since I left. One was from a well-known portrait painter, offering to pass on a several thousand pound fee for a commission. The other was from a pensioner who had spotted Robin Emmings’s H4H umbrella in Yeovil’s rain that afternoon. He and his wife have no teeth between them, but are saving up 20p pieces in Steradent tubes for H4H. Each tube holds £20. For myself, I’ve decided that when hounds next meet here, we’ll take a cap for H4H; it’s very catching.
When I visited Bryn Parry in what used to be his studio, but is now the command post of a national volunteer army, he smilingly described H4H as the “cuckoo in his nest”. Time and again, as I spoke to people across the country who had fallen prey to H4H‘s irresistible appeal, I got the same sense of them somehow making room in their busy lives to do something that they felt, imperatively, must be done.
What can we put this heart-warming success story down to? Can it be that H4H has reinvigorated something we thought we had lost, voiced an echo – especially it would seem for country people – that was always there but had been drowned out? For me the appeal and the spirit of Help for Heroes is best expressed by the simple words of one of our wounded – one of the “Blokes” – “I’m not disabled; I’ve just lost a leg.”
Help For Heroes: Gundog training