I remember sitting in a school assembly in September 2005 when a notice was read out about the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Award Scheme. I had heard a bit about this before but I decided that I would go along to the meeting in a few weeks’ time to sign up to do it through school.

For those who don’t know, the Award Scheme was set up by Prince Phillip in 1956 and there are are three levels of programme you can do which, when successfully completed, lead to a Bronze, Silver or Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The main differences between them are the minimum length of time they take to complete and how challenging they are – the Bronze expedition is over 2 days, Silver is 3 days and Gold is 4 days and the length of time it takes to complete the Award increases with each level.

There are also three other ‘sections’ which need to be completed for each Award– Skill where you learning something new or get better at something you already do, Volunteering where you can help make a difference to a charity and Physical where you (as the name suggests) exercise with an additional Residential section at Gold.

But back to 2005…I was sick on the day of the Bronze DofE meeting in school and by the first opportunity that I had to go and speak to the teacher after I came back, all of the spaces had been allocated. I offered the teacher a note from my doctor to say that I was genuinely sick in case she thought I had forgotten about it or whatever, but I was told that I would be unable to do it with school.

This left me really disappointed as I was looking forward to all that the Award involved so my mum started to research other options for me. The first place she contacted was the YMCA in Belfast who still had places for that year, so I began my Bronze DofE training with them in October 2005.

I was at the YMCA every week for the training that we would need to complete before the expedition and I was busy working on the other aspects of the Award – my skill, volunteering and physical sections with piano lessons, church youth club and table tennis.

I completed my Bronze Award training and expedition in June 2006 and when I spoke to a few friends who were doing it through school I was surprised that a good few had dropped out for various reasons and not even everyone who had continued had completed their Award.

I applied to do Gold the next year, again through school, and was again turned down because I hadn’t completed by Bronze Award though school. This seemed slightly unfair as there were people who hadn’t finished Bronze but who were taken for Gold but there was no movement on the teachers’ part.

This was probably for the best as it meant that I wasn’t doing as much during 6th Form but after I had left school, I contacted the YMCA to be told that the DofE Manager had left and they were no longer offering training for Gold. They did however recommended Belfast Activity Centre (BAC) so I began my training with them in October 2008.

I had a great time learning from Alison and Colleen throughout the year and successfully completed my qualifying expedition in the Lake District in July 2009. Gold was definitely not an easy experience, nor was I expecting it to be, but I really enjoyed the training and expedition – once I knew that I had actually passed!

Photo after Gold
A photo of my Gold group and our leaders

All of the BAC staff that were with us, including my Assessor Raymond, were fantastic and I probably wouldn’t have gotten through it without them. The day after we had completed the Gold expedition, we were sitting in a restaurant in the Lake District when Jill, one of the other leaders, asked if I would to come back and help with the Bronze award the following year.

I took some time to think about it but I quickly realised that it if hadn’t of been for people who gave up their time to help me though my DofE, I wouldn’t have been able to have completed it so I thought it was time to give something back to let other people through theirs.

Though my involvement with BAC I became a member of the DofE Northern Ireland Youth Committee (and subsequently Vice-Chair) and had some fantastic experiences. Through the Youth Committee I was invited to a Garden Party at Hillsborough Castle, attended by HRH The Prince of Wales and was awarded the RUC George Cross Foundation bursary in 2013 for a week of training in the Lake District. I was also incredibly fortunate to be invited to Windsor Castle as part of the Irish State Visit in 2014 to meet HRH The Queen, Prince Philip, President and Mrs Higgins as well as many other Northern Irish celebrities.

WindsorA photo inside Windsor Castle

Though the DofE NI office and BAC I also undertook some additional expedition and supervisor training and in 2011 I completed my Assessor training and became one of the youngest Gold Award assessors throughout the UK. In September 2015 I began my 7th year of volunteering with BAC and still really enjoy passing on my knowledge and experience to Bronze groups every year.

The point I am trying to make is that if I would have completed my Bronze Award through school in 2007, I wouldn’t have received the same support that I got from the YMCA, probably wouldn’t have wanted to do Gold and definitely wouldn’t have received the opportunities that I have since.

I was really annoyed with that teacher and the system when I was turned down back in 2007 but I now firmly believe that everything worked out far better in the end…it just took me 8 years to work that out.