‘I’d be selling drugs otherwise’: teenager tells MPs how RDA volunteering ‘saved him’

A teenager who has been volunteering with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) for two years says the organisation “saved him”.

James Wiseman spoke at a parliamentary reception on Wednesday (6 February) at which the RDA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, presented a report on the benefits of volunteering.

In investigations funded by Sport England, the RDA looked into who its 18,000 “vital” volunteers are, and how they feel about giving up their time.

The report focused on the “dual benefit” of volunteering for the RDA – not only does it mean participants can benefit from riding and carriage driving, the volunteers themselves enjoy benefits to their mental and physical health.

James, a carriage driving coach who also volunteers with riding activities at the Park Lane Stables RDA in London, said that two years ago, he would not have been able to address guests in the House of Commons, including MPs and charity supporters.

“My home life was a struggle so I wasn’t outgoing and I struggled with depression,” he said. “The yard helped me better myself; they showed me what was right and wrong and that the way the boys in my area were going wasn’t right.”

James told H&H he had been riding at Park Lane Stables before he started volunteering with the RDA group, and that at first he just “helped out with the heavy lifting” as it “saved paying for a gym and you make new friends”.

But he moved on to more regular volunteering, eventually earning his certificate as a carriage driving coach.

“I hadn’t done well at school; I always tried but had never passed anything in my life, that was my first ever certificate,” he said. “Helping with the horses and the groups made me feel needed. My confidence went up, and my depression went down.

“It saved me really. Natalie [O’Rourke, the yard owner] takes people and fixes them; she changes them into proper people.”

Asked where he would be without the RDA, James said: “Probably selling drugs, like the other boys in my area, causing problems, harassing locals and selling things I shouldn’t have my hands on. I could even have been stabbed – people I know have been – and I didn’t want that. Why would I want to ruin my life any more?

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“So Natalie sorted me out, and now I know I can get success if I keep pushing; that’s what I want.

“It feels too good to go backwards. I want to stay with horses, and maybe go into the Army, the King’s Troop.

“But I’ll still volunteer with the RDA, they’re stuck with me for the next 50 years.”

For more on the RDA report and its implications, see next week’s H&H magazine, out 14 February.

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