By Maxine Thorne
There is something magical about any boat trip but when the boat has been specially built to give people with disabilities a day of relaxation and fun, it takes ‘messing about on the river’ to a new level.
This is certainly true for the tens of thousands of guests with disabilities or life-limiting illnesses who, for 26 sun-dappled seasons, have enjoyed a day on the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal thanks to the Willow Trust. This is more than an excellent day out; the many guests who enjoy it do not have to pay a penny.
The Willow Trust, based in Cirencester in Gloucestershire, provides day trips on the canal for people with disabilities across a very broad spectrum.
Around 7,000 people enjoyed the peace and calm of canal cruising during the 2016 season, which runs every weekday from early April to late October.
All costs were covered by fundraising and donations, including annual donations from Friends of Willow Trust, a wide range of organisations, individuals and charity groups and local Rotary clubs.
Liz Rowland of the Willow Trust told us, “On a Willow Trust boat there are absolutely no barriers to who can be our guest; not age, nor any type of disability. Our guests and their carers join the volunteer crews and professional skipper of the Spirit of Freedom II or the Leonard Matchan for a day on the water which, for some, will not have been experienced before.
“Both boats were built to be highly stable and on-board we have a large electric lift so wheelchair users can also go up to the helm position and steer the boat they are on. The boats have long picture windows and an outside seating area and as our website shows, there are sometimes theme days such as the Pirate Day. The photos tell the story of how much our guests enjoy their time with us.
“When we talk about disability at The Willow Trust, we don’t interpret what that means. We started in 1989 and our first boat would cost £130,000. It was built in the Spring of 1991. That order was based on £5 that we had received as a donation and we then had to raise money for each of the payment stages. People spread the word.”
There is no doubt that the funding of two boats, two full time qualified captains, as well as the maintenance and running costs is a challenge and, as Liz said, “We need to continually raise money and we have to go forward optimistically. With two boats out and money not falling from the sky, we greatly appreciate the kind people who support The Willow Trust.”
The Willow Trust relies on 100 or so volunteers to keep their daily week-time cruises going during their seven-month long season. About 10 per cent are members of local Rotary clubs and one is Richard Belliss. Richard has been a Rotarian for 25 years and was President of his Cotswold Tyndale Club for 2006/7, during which The Willow Trust was Richard’s chosen charity.
Richard interrupted his holiday to speak to us about not only what ‘Willow’ means to the guests but also to volunteers who give their time and effort to make the canal cruises so popular. In fact, so popular that every day of the 2016 season was booked and reservations for 2017 are already coming in. We asked Richard to explain how he became involved with The Willow Trust and it turns out this is a family affair.
Richard told us, “My wife, Di, has supported The Willow Trust for over 20 years and when I retired ten years ago I was able to give some of my own time, too. We have around 30 guests on each trip and three or four volunteer crewmembers and, of course, our Skipper. As volunteer crewmembers, we are trained well so we can assist guests and deal with any emergency, should one arise. Even taking the helm, if need be.
“We ensure our guests are comfortable and have a great day out, cruising along from about 10.30am and then stopping for a picnic lunch before returning home at around 3pm. The restorative nature of being on water gives enjoyment and relaxation to our guests and their carers.”
Richard continued, “Other local Rotary clubs, as well as mine, donate to the funds which are so important to The Willow Trust. The donations also come from other organisations and individuals, of course, and are greatly appreciated.
“This is why our guests do not have to pay. Personally, I enjoy it particularly because I am interacting with people who have varying disabilities or life-limiting illnesses, and no one is excluded due to money. It’s rewarding to make their time with us as pleasant as possible.”
Source: Rotary in Britain and Ireland Magazine