Dunstable teenager is using volunteering to successfully challenge anxieties

Emily Williams
Emily Williams

A Dunstable teenager who volunteers to help her overcome anxiety is in a competition that hails the ‘giving to others’ of Bedfordshire’s younger generation.

Seventeen-year-old Emily Williams, of Saxon Close, has clocked up nearly 100 hours helping others.

MBTC Yopey logo

MBTC Yopey logo

Now she has been nominated for the Atlas Converting Young People of the Year awards or ‘YOPEYs’ – Oscars for young people who ‘give to others’.

The annual contest has over £1000 to be won by Bedfordshire young people who are positive role models. There will be at least two Beds Young People of the Year. A senior YOPEY, aged 17-25, winning £500, and a junior YOPEY, aged 10-16, winning £300. Either prize can be won by an individual or group and the winners have to invest most of their winnings in their good cause but can keep £100 to treat themselves. There will also be several £100 runners-up prizes.

Emily was nominated by Adam Payn of Youth Action, a body that organises volunteering opportunities for young people in Central Bedfordshire.

Adam said: “Emily first registered with Youth Action in 2015 and, despite having social anxiety, has pushed herself to attend many volunteering opportunities. She has volunteered for Flitwick Town Council children’s events, raised money for the NSPCC, supported local charity Keech and is now a Wildlife Ranger.

“Emily also supported Youth Action by attending the Dominoes art project in Milton Keynes and recorded one of our podcast episodes.

“I believe she has helped many others through her volunteering. Having spoken to her on a number of occasions she presents as someone who refuses to let her social difficulties limit her.”

Emily said: “I volunteer for many different roles partly because I like to have a variety of experiences. It is always something new and interesting.

“Volunteering helps me to learn about different roles; the skills of responsibility, teamwork, among other things. It is also good for meeting new people, good for the CV, and it is also a good change of scenery to always revising in my room.”

Emily is currently studying A-levels at Queensbury Academy in Dunstable.

Emily speaks openly about her anxiety. “I’ve had anxiety my whole life and as I got older it got worse - through middle and upper school I struggled making friends and dreaded even the thought of school.

“Taking part in volunteering reduces my anxiety because I have to face my fears of taking part in activities I’m not used to.

“Being around people I’m not used to seeing also gives me confidence.”

“I find that a good way of coping with anxiety is actually facing what you’re afraid of. My fear of being around unfamiliar people is reduced when I actually put myself in a situation with unfamiliar people.

So far Emily’s favourite volunteering has been two ‘Big Board Game Days’ held in Shefford this year and Flitwick last year. “Each lasted eight hours and was literally playing board games the whole day, and getting sponsored for the NSPCC charity,” explained Emily. “I met some amazing people and everyone had a load of fun.”

Another challenge for Emily was ‘starring’ in a Youth Action film about being a young person today. “The podcast was an hour long. It was a conversation between me and Adam about ‘what it is like to be a young person in modern times? Topics included games, what GCSEs are like, politics etc.”

Emily sums up the benefits of volunteering. “I don’t think my anxiety will ever go away completely. Ironically the more you avoid feeling anxiety, the worse your anxiety gets when you do happen to find yourself in a situation.

“It can be hard to find the courage to volunteer with anxiety, but I have found my anxiety has improved immensely since I started volunteering last year. Along with getting support from counselling and other professionals.

“I now have 99 per cent attendance at school, I have good friends, and I feel a lot more comfortable with it.”

Emily is looking forward to receiving her ‘V100’ award for volunteering for 100 hours “which I am very close to getting”.

After A-levels she hopes to move on to a pre-university art course. “I’m not sure what I want to do when I complete my studies, everything I want to do sounds so ‘unrealistic’, but I’m currently thinking of journalism or art.”

She is also thinking about volunteering abroad during a gap year.

YOPEY has been praised by national leaders including former prime ministers and the new Education Secretary for seeking out ‘ordinary’ young people who contribute “something extraordinary to their communities”.

Justine Greening MP said: “The awards provide an inspiration for other young people – and for adults – that even in difficult circumstances young people can find ways to help others and change the world around them.”

YOPEY started in Bedfordshire in 2006 and has expanded to many other counties. Its founder, former national newspaper journalist Tony Gearing, said: “There are many young people in Bedfordshire doing wonderful things for others. It’s just that they live in the shadow of a well-publicised anti-social minority.

“We need to give young people the respect they deserve and set up the best as positive role models for others to copy rather than focusing on the small number who appear in the press for negative reasons.”

About this entry, Tony said: “Emily is using volunteering to challenge her anxiety. And it looks like she is succeeding. Well done, Emily.”

As well as Atlas Converting, which is based in Wolseley Road, Kempston, this year’s Beds YOPEY is sponsored by the county’s fire & rescue service and recruitment company Guidant Group.

The YOPEY charity has also received grants from Bedfordshire & Luton Community Foundation, the Gale Family Trust and Wixamtree.

The Bedfordshire awards will be presented at St John’s College, Cambridge, this autumn when a joint ceremony with Cambridgeshire young people will be held. But each county will have its own Young People of the Year.

# Do you know somebody who deserves the title Young Person of the Year? To nominate logon to or write, enclosing a stamped-addressed-envelope, to YOPEY, Woodfarm Cottage, Bury Road, Stradishall, Newmarket CB8 8YN for a paper entry form. Entries close on July 31st.

YOPEY is open to young people aged from 10 to 25, who should live, work or study in Hertfordshire. But they do not have to meet all three conditions. They could go to school, college or university in Herts but live elsewhere and vice versa.

Typical entries include fundraisers, young carers, club leaders, volunteers on projects at home or abroad and young leaders who pass on academic or sporting skills. YOPEY is always revealing new positive role models and the qualification for entry is easy – simply, the young person has to ‘give to others’.

Schools, youth organisations, churches and charities across Herts are being urged to nominate their young people. If their nominee wins, they can share the prize money. Family and friends can also nominate but they cannot win prize money. Young people can even nominate themselves.