Nicky shares what the last 10 years of Salamander have meant to her…
Does it sound overly-dramatic to say that Salamander saves lives?
10 years ago, I saw a YouTube clip about a group of young people taking part in a fire service training course in Essex. They were running out hose, climbing ladders and having a brilliant time. They also all had Down’s syndrome.
Within minutes I had contacted the committee of the Swindon Down’s Syndrome Group to ask for permission to contact our local fire service to see if they ran anything similar here. I wanted my boys to have that experience, I wanted them to gain an understanding of the fire and rescue service and learn how to respond in an emergency but, most of all, I wanted them to have fun with their friends whilst learning and achieving.
Yasmine Ellis, a youth engagement worker, replied to my message on the Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service website, as it was known then, to say that she would like to meet. Little did I know that this would be a pivotal moment in the life of my family. We met, chatted and enthused over the possibilities and then met with Watch Manager and Salamander Commander Mark Evans. He had already been thinking about how to make Salamander accessible to the wider community of Swindon – Salamander had previously been thought of as a tool to engage young people who were at risk of exclusion from school, working with community groups such as the Swindon Down’s Syndrome Group and Swindon Young Carers would extend that reach to include those that could gain positively in any number of areas: a break from caring, independence skills, social and communication skills, gross motor skills and safety awareness.
So, Swindon Down’s Syndrome Group’s annual Salamander course was born. That first year just 11 young people took part and what an amazing time they had. Nothing was adapted because we found that nothing needed to be adapted. These young people could listen, understand instruction, manage the heavy cutting equipment, crawl through tunnels wearing BA sets and swim across Coate Water. They enjoyed the company of the firefighters, enjoyed being with their friends and enjoyed learning important fire safety messages.
All that sounds wonderful but how does that save lives?
Well, just a few years into supporting our young people on their annual course I was invited to support on other courses to prove that our young people weren’t receiving a diminished service but that In fact, they were able to challenge every young person on a course in terms of ability, enthusiasm and a desire to achieve. This opportunity led to me volunteering on every course and then being offered a job and this is where saving lives becomes apparent.
The day I started paid work was the day after my husband’s funeral. Salamander became a life-line, a family, a reason to get up in the morning and to put one foot in front of the other. My new colleagues cared for me and my family. They were there to help in person as well as on the end of a phone or ever present on cyber-space. They went above and beyond to meet our needs. They heard our calls for help and responded if only to say, ‘We are here for you.’ They also continue to do so four years down the line and I and my family owe our well-being to them all.
Our young people have embraced this course; they consider the instructors friends, they quote safety messages and count down the ‘Sleeps to Salamander’ each year. They enjoy the company of friends and work as a team. They challenge themselves, encourage each other and celebrate achievement with cheers, dance and song. They welcome new-comers as only they can and mourn the loss of loved ones with maturity, bluntness and love, as only they can.
It has been an incredible honour to be a part of this project. We have learnt, loved and laughed together and it is now a major part of our lives and we will be forever grateful.