Lea is one of our Young Leaders on the Our Lives, Our Voices programme in Northern Ireland and she recently joined the Northern Ireland Advisory Council.
In 2019, Diabetes UK Northern Ireland secured funding from the National Lottery Community Fund – Empowering Young People for a five-year project called Our Lives, Our Voices, for young people aged 11-25 living with type 1 diabetes in Northern Ireland.
The perfect opportunity
Lea was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 12. From her diagnosis, she was passionate about advocating for people living with diabetes and raising awareness, particularly because there’s a lot of stigma around the condition. She says “I wanted people to understand what this actually is.”
As she was growing up, she’d always been involved in groups like her hockey club but wanted to do something just for diabetes. In her first year at university, Lea heard about Our Lives, Our Voices (OLOV) through a friend who knew someone else who was volunteering, and Lea applied to be a Young Leader. She felt this was the perfect role for her, as it was a mix of volunteering and peer support. This gave her the opportunity to raise awareness and meet other young people living with type 1.
A varied role
Lea joined OLOV in December 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of the lockdowns throughout the pandemic, the first projects Lea worked on as part of OLOV were virtual, rather than face-to-face. The Young Leaders devised an online well-being programme for young people living with type 1. For this they used virtual support sessions alongside volunteers from Action Mental Health and other mental health charities in Northern Ireland.
More recently, OLOV events have been in-person, and Lea feels it’s so much better to be together and like she knows the other volunteers much more now. The Young Leaders are still active online, and use their Facebook, Twitter (X) and Instagram pages to share their work and support other young people living with type 1.
Lea also sits on the Northern Ireland Advisory Council (NIAC). She explains this is a forum for volunteers, healthcare professionals, and other people affected by diabetes, who meet three times per year with Diabetes UK Northern Ireland staff members to talk about the charity’s strategies and future priorities.
Lea was really excited to be invited to join the NIAC:
“It’s really nice that Diabetes UK take the time to get feedback from people living with diabetes, because you don’t always get that chance to feed in.”
Highlights and successes
There have been many highlights for Lea during her time as a volunteer. Earlier this year, the Young Leaders compiled a collection of photographs depicting life with type 1 as a young person. The photos were displayed in a special exhibition called ‘Type 1 Through The Lens’ that opened on World Diabetes Day (14 November) at the Belfast Exposed Gallery. Lea was delighted that the opening event was very well-attended, and says it was interesting to see the different ways other people view life with type 1.
In 2020-21, the Young Leaders designed and created a programme called ‘We Are Type 1’ to bring young people with type 1 together to share their stories, improve their understanding of diabetes, and grow in confidence to better manage their condition. This led to the Young Leaders producing a video showing their diabetes in a positive way. Lea says this video project and the photography exhibition have given her opportunities and experiences that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
And she feels volunteering has definitely helped her in her career, working in a politics and public affairs role.
“The video and photography projects, working in different settings, in groups and on projects, opened so many doors to different experiences; I never thought I’d be writing a film script!”
Lea has also really enjoyed meeting lots of different people and knowing they’re experiencing the same things that she is. While volunteering at the Balmoral Show in Belfast in May she met lots of people with different experiences of diabetes. One highlight was meeting someone living with type 1 who’d never met anyone else using an insulin pump or Libre (flash glucose monitor) before.
“It’s so nice when you make that connection and see the benefits for both of you, just talking and relating. It shows the importance of having people around who understand what you’re going through.”
Looking to the future
When the National Lottery funding for OLOV comes to an end in March 2024, the project will join up with Together Type 1 (formerly known as Our Lives, Our Choices, Our Voices). Funded by the Steve Morgan Foundation, Together Type 1 is our programme, launched in 2022, to support young people aged 11-25 with type 1 diabetes, currently based in England, Scotland and Wales. Lea is excited about meeting more young people with type 1 and taking part in different, bigger projects.
In the shorter term, OLOV have some wellbeing days for young people with type 1 and their families coming up, as well as a 'fireside chat' with a fitness coach giving advice on managing sports and exercise alongside diabetes.
And when Lea is 25 (at 22, she has plenty of time yet!) and moves on from the OLOV/Together Type 1 youth programme, she says she definitely wants to continue volunteering with Diabetes UK. Volunteering is a big part of Lea’s life, and there are peer support projects and a large type 1 community in Northern Ireland that she’d like to get involved in.
“A lot of the time it doesn’t feel like volunteering, because it’s beneficial to you. It’s helping others and I enjoy it so much.”
A message to others
Lea’s message for anyone thinking about volunteering is simply “go for it.”
“Volunteering not only benefits others but also you so it’s a win-win situation. The work Diabetes UK does is so important and valuable, it’s a nice feeling to be part of it.”
She’d encourage anyone to volunteer as there are so many different opportunities. She says: “I’ve done things I wouldn’t have had the chance to if I wasn’t part of this. There are lots of benefits and it’s something I’d definitely recommend.”