Torch Bearer Niresha Umaichelvam on why she’ll never stop helping others
Finding out I was selected to carry the torch was a moment I will never forget, second only to the moment I finally had it in my hands, and carried the flame through the streets of Crowborough. I am a 19 years old student from Cheam in Surrey and one of the few British Sri Lankans that was selected to bear the great 2012 Olympic Flame of London.
Torch Bearers are ‘nominated’ and I got mine for the work I do for various charities. My ethos in life is that we should always try and give back to our community and since the age of 15 I have tried to live up to my words. It started with volunteering at my local charity shop, I did that every Saturday morning and as well as getting to know all the regular customers and helping run the store, I assisted my manager to fundraise for special occasions such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas.
Alongside this, I also visited an elderly home every Saturday after my shift, where I would serve tea and play games with the more energetic residents. During this time, I met some truly inspiring people. One afternoon a home care assistant introduced me to a special gentleman in his nineties who told me some incredible stories. He was a veteran of WWI where he was a sergeant for the Navy. During the war, he also was an undertaker and he fascinated me with his amazing tales of how he would wait on London Bridge for planes to deliver dead British soldiers to be taken to the mass crematorium.
One story I’ll never forget was one night, in his early twenties, he had to watch corpses burn at night and he saw one sitting up at the table; it made him run out in fear! We also shared many jokes and I was nicknamed ‘Duckie’ as he believed that it suited my ‘heart warming personality’. I was lucky enough to meet his entire family and on his passing, I they told me that he would quickly gobble down his breakfast on a Saturday morning and steal a few extra sweet treats from the table for me, then run to his room so he could groom up ready for his 11:30am visit from ‘his Duckie’. I feel so honoured that he kept me so close to his heart, especially in his last stages, where on his bookshelf a picture of him and I, that I framed for him, was all that remained. He will always be an important figure in my life. He taught me several life lessons and was very much like a grandfather to me.
After than I continued my charity work by taking part in Race For Life to raise money for Cancer Research and slept ‘rough’ for a charity dedicated to the homeless which entailed a night in a cardboard box in the basement of our school with no heating to shield us from December’s cold gusts of wind and only a cold cup of soup for dinner. It was such an eye opening experiences and made me want to participate in other charity work to help people less fortunate than me.
Whilst studying for my A levels, I used my time on a Wednesday afternoons to teach English to 12-13 year old girls who had a language barrier and who classed English as their second language. This helped me engage and reach out to younger students and many of them looked up to me as a friend and a role model, often approaching me for advice.
I also take part annually in a summer scheme for children with special needs escorting them on exciting days out to amusement parks and local farms, as well as staying indoors and playing games, engaging in art and craft or just talking and spending time with them. I do this for one to two weeks every year and I really look forward to it during my summer holidays. Last year a parent even bought me chocolates to thank me for giving her son an amazing week. It was very rewarding to hear that I could have such an impact on a young person’s life. I also make it a point to pay a visit to a care home for children and young adults of different abilities in Sri Lanka whenever I visit my grandparents.
Now in my first year at University, I am still trying to engage in charity work whilst juggling a more intense workload and a part time job. I was elected as the Fundraising Secretary of the Law Society, and I helped with the organising and running of RAG (Raising and Giving) Week at university, where we chose to support a children’s hospital and a charity that provides legal aid to those who cannot afford it. This huge responsibility ranged from street fundraising around my university to organising events for students and approaching different departments and lecturers to get them to help. The experience of organising RAG week for over 21,000 students is something I’ve very proud of as we raised tremendous amounts of funds for both charities.
My commitment to charity will never stop growing and I hope it continues to flourish and impact on someone, somewhere, be it big or small. As well as carrying the Olympic Flame I am participating in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games, as a dancer, which I consider to the ‘icing on the cake’.
This year has been one of the most exciting of my life. I feel so lucky and proud of my achievements and hope my story will encourage other young people so do what they can for charity, especially over the summer holidays when lot of them complain they have nothing to do! This is your opportunity to make a difference – so go for it!