Walking for Health team at the Balsam Centre - Inspiring walkers

  • Name: Ali Leftwich, Simon Leftwich and Lu Jones
  • Volunteer role: Volunteer walk leaders
  • Volunteering with the Ramblers since: 2013 / 2014

Whey they were nominated:

When Ali joined as a volunteer with her group, she felt that there was a need for much shorter walks, for people who had never taken walks and for those aiming to get fitter. Joined by Simon and Lu, the group started with weekly short walks from the Balsam Centre that were about 45 minutes long. They soon realised even this was too long for some and so started a second weekly walk from the medical centre in the town and worked tirelessly to spread the word and encourage people to join them, working closely with a local nurse in the process. Their positive attitude is infectious with some of the walkers becoming walk leaders, and others getting involved in other activities the Centre runs. The group is very inclusive – from age 18 to 80, some with early stages of dementia, people with learning difficulties, people wanting to lose weight and increase their fitness, and some who just enjoy the social aspect.

A walk and talk with Ali, Lu and Simon

What does a typical day of volunteering look like?

Ali: We run two health walks – one around 45 minutes, and then one around 30 minutes – and together they normally take up a whole morning. Wincanton is a fairly hilly place so we have to choose our routes carefully to suit the people on the walk – we do this by getting to know everyone and a sense of what they can do.

Simon: We head to the Balsam Centre and sometimes pick people up on the way for the longer walk. We usually get there 15-30 minutes before the walk starts to do the register, chat and say hello – especially if someone new is there. A friendly atmosphere is incredibly important. At the end of walk, most people stay on for tea and coffee at the Balsam Centre. After this we head down to the doctor’s surgery, normally taking some people from the Balsam Centre and we spend some time chatting to staff at the surgery. We start and finish the shorter walk here, then do all the paperwork.

What made you want to volunteer?

Lu: Volunteering was something I’d always wanted to do – but working full-time with a family, I couldn’t. I became a member of the Ramblers around six years ago but didn’t start volunteering until 2014. I’d started working part-time and had the time to volunteer. I registered with do-it.org and it just so happened that I found a role with Walking for Health. Walking and volunteering sounded like the perfect combination!

Ali: When we moved to the area, I went to the Balsam Centre to say that I wanted to lead some walks – they were already running walks but they were all about four or five miles and geared towards people who were already reasonably fit – plus you needed to drive to the start. So, I picked up some leaflets from tourist information and walked around the town and worked out some routes. That’s how it all started.

How do you feel you make a difference?

Simon: Seeing walkers progress, even from the shorter walk to the 45-minute one, is one of the most satisfying elements of volunteering. It’s amazing to see people feel they want, and are able, to do more.

Lu: I have always enjoyed walking and thought it’s a great way to stay fit, and since becoming a volunteer I’ve become quite passionate about it. I want to get everyone on the walks! I remember one older lady joining our short walk, and although she was extremely slow she was so amazed that she had actually walked a mile, she couldn’t thank me enough. That was when I thought: this is why I volunteer, it felt good.

Why do you love walking ?

Lu: I’m not a sporty person, so it’s my main form of exercise. One of the biggest benefits has been going down a dress size but there are mind benefits too; I always feel satisfied at the end of a walk – it puts me in a better mood. It’s definitely helped me meet new people. I live about eight miles about Wincanton so I’ve learned more about the area.

Ali and Simon: It’s taken us all over the world – Europe, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Italy, France and around the UK – the Brecon Beacons, the South West Coast Path and Northumberland Way. You see things on a walk that you wouldn’t see any other way.

Why should other people take up walking?

Simon: It’s easy, cheap and good for your health – both your mental and physical health. There are no barriers – even in city you can get out walking easily. There’s also fantastic social side, which people don’t necessarily know about; this element is as important as the actual walking itself.

Ali: Quite a few people will talk about issues on a walk in a way that they wouldn’t do normally, compared to sitting down one to one, face to face. A lot of my work has been in bereavement – and I’ve often thought that some people might do a lot better going out for a walk and talking rather than being in a therapist’s chair.

If you could change one thing about walking, or the walking environment, what would that be?

Ali: Personally we’d like to recruit more walk leaders so we can offer more walks, and get cover if we’re away.

Lu: I think we need more walkways that are well-maintained for people with limited mobility. Of course it’s lovely to walk in the countryside through fields but these routes aren’t accessible for everyone so I’d like to see more parks with solid walkways.