THIS IS FAB

During July 2013 I took a week’s leave, and spent it as a volunteer supporting bereaved military families in Cornwall as part of the Families Activity Breaks (FAB).

FAB was set up 5 years ago, and aims to provide any bereaved military family with a fun, challenging, safe and supporting activity break. It gives these families the opportunity to spend quality time with each other, and mix with others who really understand what they are going through, no matter how the death of the serving family member occurred. The bereaved loved one can mean a parent, a step parent, a child’s legal guardian, carer or sibling.

FAB is a non-public funded, Tri-Service charitable initiative in partnership with the Youth Hostel Association (England & Wales) Limited, and runs highly successful camps mainly at two locations, Coverack in Cornwall and Whitby in North Yorkshire.  This year, over 50 families benefitted from attending these activity camps.

FAB camps are run by willing volunteers from the Armed Forces, civilians working with the military and Ex-Services Personnel. Prior to being selected as a volunteer, I was interviewed by the Project Leader of FAB for my suitability. I was then CRB checked and cleared. I also had to attend a two day training seminar which covered basic bereavement techniques and other necessary skills, taught by a bereavement counselling service who specialise in supporting children and young adults facing bereavement.

There are a number of different roles that volunteers can apply for; OIC Camp, Bereavement Support Volunteer, Community Support Volunteer or Family Volunteer. I was a Family Volunteer, which was a very practical role. I was allocated a family and I provided friendly and supportive help to enable my family to have a relaxing and positive experience. I helped as a mentor, lending a helping hand to support the camp and help make it work. I was also one of the drivers, transporting the families to and from the variety of activities that they took part in, and above all, I was always there as someone to talk to! It was very comfortable for me to chat about bereavement, on a very low level basis might I add. It was made quite clear to all that volunteers do not specialise in bereavement counselling – FAB is not a counselling holiday – this is a fun activity holiday!

The focus on the activities provided is not only to offer great fun for all involved, but also to build confidence in the children who may have found life hard since the loss of a loved one. FAB is also credited with helping to forge strong relationships between the various families – a feature which builds over the week and leads to firm friendships and the development of peer support after the week is over with others that have experienced the same pain of bereavement. FAB shares something that nothing else provides, because everyone attending has lost someone, mainly dads and siblings. Young children are going through one of the worst things that you can possibly imagine.

A basic example of what I mean is, and this was overheard on the first hour of the first day on the FAB Camp I volunteered for:

Child 1: “My Daddy was killed in Afghanistan.”

Child 2: “My Dad died in a Car Accident.”

Child 1: “Do you want a game of pool?”

At this point the children went off and enjoyed a few fun frames of pool.  The conversation I heard was very much matter of fact without a bat of an eyelid to anyone overhearing the conversation. I just couldn’t imagine a similar conversation happening normally.

To the activities themselves, from Day 1 the kids started hanging around together by playing football and other games straight after the arrival dinner. Day 2 saw teambuilding activities in a large disused quarry, including climbing and canoeing. Day 3 was Coasteering (which is a physical activity that encompasses movement along rocky coastline on foot, jumping, or by swimming), followed by field crafting, and body-boarding in the sea. Day 4 was a trip to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at Gweek followed by the rest of the day by the seaside. Day 5 was a trip to Lands End and St Ives. Day 6 was abseiling, raft building and zip wire. My fond memory of the zip wire was seeing an absolutely fearless 4-year old girl jump off the platform without a care in the world, with a huge smile as big as her face! Day 7 was home time (very emotional!).

The children loved the whole week – I noticed a particularly shy, quiet boy on the first day who was definitely not quiet and shy when he left! I was humbled by the children’s ability to mix with each other as they were all experiencing similar struggles and hurdles. This is because they were allowed them to be themselves – children having fun, this is what FAB provided. The difference this break provides to the kids is outstanding.

FAB volunteers are at the heart of what makes FAB tick – getting involved, giving encouragement to the kids (and the adults), or simply sitting and chatting with someone because they want to share how they are feeling. From a volunteer’s perspective FAB breaks can be emotionally and physically demanding, as we were all working over 15 hours each and every day, but I found the whole experience extremely rewarding. I know that all volunteers were very much appreciated by all the families on the holiday.

I will be applying to volunteer again next year!

If you are interested in knowing more about FAB, want to donate to this cause, or wish to become a volunteer, please visit the website at fabcamps.org.uk.