Young Irish MS fund-raiser wins British award

Shauna Duggan spoke to the young Irishman who won Young MS Person of the Year.

Ben Allister from the small town of Irvinestown, in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland has achieved a lot in the last year for something he feels very strongly about. Ben did his family, friends, and community proud this year when it was announced that he had won Young MS Person of the Year when he was just 17 years old. He was nominated by Maureen Welsh, vice-chair of the Fermanagh branch of the MS Society.

But what is MS exactly? MS stands for multiple sclerosis. It is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, resulting in loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensation (resulting in numbness). With MS, the nerves of the brain and spinal cord are damaged by one’s own immune system. Thus, the condition is called an autoimmune disease.

No one is sure what causes the body’s immune system to go awry in MS. Some scientists believe that it is a combination of genetics and something in the environment to which the person was exposed early in life.

Ben told his inspirational story and also spoke about how he felt at the time when it was announced that he had won Young MS Person of the Year: “I felt totally overcome with a feeling of self-accomplishment and also a great feeling that the work I had done has helped so many people. Although I set out feeling resentful for gaining recognition, I believed it helped hugely in publicity for the MS Society as it is quite an overlooked charity.”

There is a reason why the MS charity has quite a big impact on Ben’s life. “My mum is a sufferer from MS so that was the main reason for choosing an MS group. Secondly, I realised that it was quite an overlooked charity, so I decided to help out and raise some funds.”

He did not just set up what he was going to do overnight; it took a lot of planning and getting people together to help him out. “I organised a 90-mile charity cycle from Enniskillen in Co. Fermanagh to Newcastle in Co. Down. I organised various bag-packing activities, fireside quizzes and also school non-uniform days for all the schools in Enniskillen.

“Choosing a cycle was quite an easy choice for me as I enjoy it and so do many of my family members and friends. It is also a test of stamina and willpower and I believe this fitted in well with the charity as sufferers of MS require great amounts of willpower and stamina at times. I raised £19,000 last year with all the events I listed above. The school non-uniform day was particularly beneficial, as it raised money and also brought MS and the MS Society to the attention of a lot of school kids and their parents. I was also surprised by the enthusiasm and support of the people who helped with all of the events, as well as the cyclists, who not only raised a lot of money but also completed the cycle.”

The activities took place in many different areas around the county, which shows great dedication from everyone involved: “The venue for the bag packing took place in Marks and Spencer’s, B&M Bargains and the large Asda supermarket in town. The non-uniform days obviously took place in the schools, and the charity cycle took place from Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh to Newcastle in Co. Down. I’d say altogether it took five months to organise the cycle, bag packing and non-uniform days.”

Ben thought that these ideas were the best ways for raising money in his community. “I had thought quite a lot about just doing the cycle but I felt that I wanted to include all areas of the community from all ages and all ability levels.”

It was also a massive achievement for our country that Ben won this award, even if it is not highly known about. “I was the only Irish/Northern Irish nominee in my category. The majority of nominees were from England or Wales. It felt amazing; I didn’t expect to win at all!”

Ben spoke about the other highlights of his trip to London when he travelled over for his award. “I had never been to London before so I took the chance to do some sight-seeing. I visited the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, etc. I met a few celebrities when I was over too. I met two of the guys from JLS, Oritsé Williams and JB Gill, and I sat at the same table as Jay Rayner, a British journalist, and Janis Winehouse, who is Amy Winehouse’s mother.”

Competition was extremely tough for Ben and all the other nominees in his category for the award. “There were so many well-deserved candidates and I believe that although I won the award in the end, we are all winners as individually we have raised massive amounts of money and have helped so many people along the way. In my category alone, there were 15 people!”

Support was one of the main things that helped Ben along his journey: “My mother and father were a great help during the whole thing. Although I wanted to do the cycle, bag packs and non-uniform days independently, I felt that including my family and the surrounding community would be more beneficial to both me and the publicity of the charity. A couple of my friends helped me out with the bag packing.”

Ben continued by saying how he would like to maybe help other kinds of charities in the near future. “Although MS will always have a place in my heart, I would like to diversify my efforts and try raising money for other charities such as Cancer Research and the NSPCC.”

It was really interesting to hear his story about raising money for MS. My father also suffers from MS so it was nice to hear about somebody young standing up for the charity and the illness. It makes people more aware of both the condition and that earning money for something you strongly believe in cannot be that hard.

“I really encourage people of all ages to get out there and get involved,” Ben said. “Help others in any way you think you can. It really does not matter how much you raise; every little helps and your efforts could mean the difference between life and death for some people. Helping other people gives you a great feeling of satisfaction and also a great feeling of accomplishment. In my opinion, helping others is the best thing you could ever do with your spare time. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of it.”

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