A lifeline for those with mobility issues - and a listening ear for those in need

WHEN Billy McClurkin couldn’t get to Antrim Forum to watch football matches, or out for a round of golf, isolation set in.

Sports - either playing, coaching or refereeing - had always been a huge part of his life and, like many older people, the loss of independence and missing out on his favourite activities meant he was stuck in a bit of a rut.

But help arrived in the form of the Shopmobility unit at Antrim’s Castle Mall.

Hiring a scooter meant that he could pop across town without having to rely on other people and gave him something to look forward to at weekends.

In fact he enjoyed his experience so much - and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Billy - he decided to volunteer for the charity and now spends his days helping people who were once in his situation.

With decades of experience in football, volunteering and youth work as well as an army career, he is well placed to offer advice and support.

In a feature for the Antrim Guardian back in 2018, Billy said: “If and when people need help, I try and help,”

“Every time I think of jacking everything in, someone calls me and asks me for a hand with something!

“I always just seem to be able to get people together and get stuff done.”

The Shopmobility scheme was founded in 1999 and has been providing help and assistance to people with mobility difficulties through the use of wheelchair, scooter and walking aid hire, ever since.

It was set by Elizabeth Black MBE, who sadly passed away at the start of the month.

Her father was a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp and she and her mother were forced to flee Singapore when she was a child, escaping to Northern Ireland via a coal boat out of Hong Kong.

Having polio never stopped her, becoming a nurse and dedicating her life to ensuring that people with mobility issues could get to the shops, go sailing, and enjoy the activities that so many others take for granted.

As a charity registered with the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, Shopmobility has helped thousands of people and demand continues to grow.

The scheme is delivered by volunteers, who take great pride in helping members get out and about, staying mobile and preventing social isolation and loneliness.

The scheme offers a meet and greet service, delivering equipment to and collecting from the Mall car park and bus and taxi pickup points in the town centre.

This service can be prebooked and members will be taken back to pick up point when finished with equipment helping members keep their independence.

Mobility scooters can help people visit the Mall shops and town centre and can also be used to visit the parks and the Castle Gardens and Lough Shore Park.

The service has been particularly valuable during the Enchanted Winter Gardens event, as older people have been able to join their families at the festive attraction.

The Shopmobility model allows anyone with a mobility difficulty, whether a life-long disability, during recovery from surgery, a sports injury or anywhere in between,  to recover lost mobility by loaning mobility equipment.

Shopmobility also provides access to an electric wheelchair or scooter for members, subject to training, for insurance purposes.

Antrim Hub members can also use equipment in Ballymena Shopmobility and Carrickfergus Shopmobility.

They also provide long-term hire on mobility scooters and wheelchairs, enabling members to take equipment on holiday or for hospital appointments and days out with family.

Indeed the Shopmobility staff and volunteers have become something of an extra emergency service, particularly during the Coronavirus lockdown.

Manager of the Antrim, Ballymena and Carrickfergus schemes, Noeleen Glass, said that many members are enjoying a new lease of life, or are able to spend what time they have left in a much more positive way.

“We have dealt with everyone - from a lady who had two legs amputated through diabetes, who was too scared to leave her house, to a terminally ill man who wanted to enjoy weekends out with his family,” she said.

“Sometimes when we are first contacted by a prospective client, they have just received bad news regarding their health and they just want someone to talk to.

“We can help put people at ease. From feeling trapped, isolated and with no sense of independence, we can help people get out and about again.

“One lady phoned us in a dreadful state, she needed surgery for cancer and her husband was struggling with a heart condition,” said Noeleen.

“We have talked her through what she needs to do, she will be getting an automatic car, after her surgery she will be coming here to get an electric scooter to get out and about, it has given her some hope and something to plan for in the future.”

Noeleen admitted that lockdown had been hard on members.

“We have lost people, because of covid, because of the knock-on complications in the NHS and because the isolation has contributed to their ill-health,” she said.

“One lady rang us and said she had no bread or milk, so we had to ring around and get her some help, on occasions our volunteers have intervened.

“Even during the tightest lockdowns, we still called our members several times a week to check on them, sometimes daily if we could tell they were really struggling.

“A lot of our members have no immediate family or they are living away, so that contact was vital.

“There is another man who does not use the service, who comes in to chat to us while he waits for his bus to Randalstown, and we always give him a call to make sure he is OK, if we haven’t seen him.

“When he took a fall in his yard and we spotted bruising, we were able to make contact with his doctor and we got the community nurse to attend his home, it turned out he had a heart condition that was then treated.

“All these contacts mean that we can assist the most vulnerable people in the community.

“Because all the funding goes into the purchase and maintenance of equipment and insurance, we have very little to spend on advertising.

“A lot of people don’t know that we are here and what support we can offer, so hopefully we can reach out to more people through this article and any businesses who would be interested in funding us.”

Funding has come from a number of sources in the past.

In the beginning, Elizabeth Black lobbied local businesses and organisations like the Lions and Probus clubs, organising charity dinners.

Lately there has been support from the Antrim project through the council, Department for Communities, Department for Infrastructure and the Big Lottery Fund.

But in the wake of the pandemic, revenue streams are dwindling and Shopmobility has never needed more support to keep going.

Volunteer Julia Adams came across the charity through the New Horizons centre.

As well as practical support, Julia is being trained up in administration and with the cajoling of Billy, who himself attained a diploma at the age of 40, is undertaking a number of other courses.

“There’s a real sense of community, we are like a family,” said Julia.

“It is so great to see people who were scared or felt unable to leave their homes, come out of themselves.

“Even if it is just a short trip down the high street, it is so important for people to retain that sense of independence.

“Their confidence grows, and my confidence has grown through being able to help them.”

Shopmobility works in tandem with other agencies, including the Macmillan Unit at Antrim Area Hospital, enabling people potentially at end of life care to have quality time with their families outside a care setting and visit tourist attractions .

There are also hubs at the other main hospitals in Northern Ireland.

Noeleen said: “We want to let people know that Antrim is open to people with a disability or mobility problem.

“Our equipment is safe, secure and serviced. No town centres or tourist attractions should be out of bounds for people who have mobility issues.

“If more people have access to town centres and tourist attractions and staycations, they will spend more and in turn help support local economies.

“It makes sense for everyone that people are as independent as possible.

“We were also recently able to provide a scooter to a local man who’s brother was visiting from Scotland and had two legs amputated.

“Instead of them being stuck at home and not able to see much, the brothers could enjoy days out together.”

As we talk, member Ruby drops back in her scooter to the hub.

“This is a great wee place!” she beams.

The Riverside resident has been to Boots and picked up a few small bits from local shops.

“I didn’t go far today,” she said.

“But it makes all the difference just being able to get out and meet people and do the things I want to do.

“Walking too far really tires me and it is great to be able to rest my legs and do my shopping without being wrecked for the rest of the day and being sore.”

Noeleen said that the busiest times for Shopmobility are before Christmas and after - especially when icy conditions can lead to the dangers of slips, trips and falls.

She is full of praise for the support the charity has received in Antrim.

“Castle Mall gives us this unit for free and the manager Pamela Minford has been so supportive,” she said.

“Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council and the team at Antrim Castle Gardens have been great too, and all the associated organisations and charities we work alongside.”

Said Billy: “When I realised how much Shopmobility had helped me and how it could help other people like me, I decided I just had to get involved and give them a hand.

“It is a really worthwhile cause that is always in need of funding and support.

“I hope that more people get to hear about it and get their independence back, and more businesses and organisations decide to get on board and become funders.”

If you want more information on how the scheme could help you or a loved one get around please call into the Disability Hub in Antrim Castle Mall, contact the scheme on 07860709876 .

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