For my second ‘Meet a Didcot resident’ blog post I’d like to introduce Andy Baker. Andy is an award winning fundraiser who founded Play2Give in 2007, and has subsequently raised over £170,000 for local charities. I caught up with him in Cornerstone to find out more about him and his life in Didcot.
Tell me about your early life.
I was born at the John Radcliffe hospital in 1988. Although I was a full term baby I ended up fighting for my life in the first few days in the special care unit. Unbeknown to my family I had suffered a brain injury at birth. However, this wasn’t fully confirmed until I was much older.
In Didcot I attended Lydalls Nursery and then Manor Primary School for a short period. However after a year I transferred to a school in Oxford which was better placed to help me with my special education needs. It was here that I had a playground accident which caused a further brain injury and resulted in major brain surgery when I was just 12 years old.
In 2001 I joined St Birinus School as a year 9 student. This was a tricky time as I had to overcome my learning difficulties and integrate with boys who’d already been together for a couple of years.
When did you start fundraising?
In 2003, whilst in year 10 at St Birinus, I organised a non-uniform day. The Oxford Mail were running a campaign to raise money for the new children’s hospital and I wanted to contribute as a thank you for the brilliant care and gift of life I received during my childhood.
The school community were very supportive of the event and I managed to raise £1000, which far exceeded my expectations. I carried on raising money, with the support of school friends, and this resulted in St Birinus School being one of the schools to raise the most money for Oxford Children’s Hospital. When it opened we were honoured to be included on a special plaque celebrating all those who had contributed £5000 or more towards the building of the hospital. Rather surreally, my name and the school’s name were placed on the same row as Jason Donovan, another supporter. I’ve met him twice, he’s such a nice guy and a legend!
I stayed on to study for three years at Didcot Sixth Form. Although I found maths tricky I studied A Level Business Studies, which included a Finance module and a BTEC ICT Programming course. I passed my exams with an A and 2 Bs, far surpassing my teacher’s expectations.
What did you do after you left school?
I finished school in 2007 and worked in a variety of office roles. Firstly in classified sales for Round & About magazine, then in the service department in Miele and finally as an administrator and Duke of Edinburgh award co-ordinator at the Baptist House in Didcot.
In 2009 I started experiencing severe neurological symptoms. Although the Baptist House tried to adapt my role and keep me working there, I had to take a long time off on sick leave and eventually left them.
It was around this time, at the age of 22, that an MRI scan diagnosed the brain injury I’d been born with. This made perfect sense, after a bit of a shock, and helped me understand why I’d had speech, learning and multiple other difficulties to overcome.
How did Play2Give start?
In 2007 Nathan, a school friend, and I decided to raise funds via a football tournament. Nathan’s mum, Maxine, helped us out with planning the tournament, organising the legal stuff and coming up with a name. Play2Give was born! At the time the name reflected our plans to raise money through playing football. As the years, and tournaments, have gone by it has become so much more.
You fundraise for a variety of different charities. How do you decide which ones?
I’ve spent a lot of time at the hospital over the years so the Oxford Children’s Hospital was a natural choice. Similarly, I’ve benefited from the services that Headway Oxfordshire provide for the last seven years so they were also an easy one to choose. Other local charities we support include Be Free Young Carers, Soundabout and Footsteps Foundation amongst so many others.
Sometimes we get approached and asked to fundraise. For example, Ronald McDonald (currently based on the top floor of the children’s hospital) are raising funds to build a brand new 4 storey 62 bedroom facility so that more parents can stay close whilst their children are in hospital. We are helping with this and working to raise £5000 towards sponsoring a family room within the house.
How has Play2Give evolved?
Since those early football tournaments we’ve branched out into other fund raising events and activities. A lot of people and businesses have helped along the way; nowadays around 30 volunteers are involved. We’ve run rock and roll bingo and quiz nights at Boundary Park, organised Christmas parties, raffles and tombolas, packed bags at supermarkets and walked, run and danced for sponsorship. We were also the local Sainsbury’s charity for a year.
In 2015 I created a Christmas spin off, Sleigh2Give. With help from Sainsbury’s we collected presents and toys for the children’s hospital. My friend Lee, dressed as Santa and armed with sackfuls of toys, walked from Didcot to the hospital in Oxford. I met him there, dressed as an elf, and helped deliver the presents on the wards. We decided to make it an annual event and the amount of money we raise, and presents we continue to receive and deliver, has gone crazy. I’m already planning this year’s Christmas event, and adding more beneficiaries!
What are you most proud of in your life?
Play2Give was 10 years old in 2017 and it was an amazing year. We raised the most money ever and in March 2017 our ‘Play2Give’ funded patient room for teenagers opened at the children’s hospital.
Later that year I received a British Citizen Award for my volunteering and fundraising activities (see photo at top of page). I also won an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Didcot Business and Community Awards (BACAs).
After that year I didn’t think it could get any better. However in 2018 I was nominated by the Didcot mayor, and then selected by the Lord Lieutenant from Oxfordshire, to attend the Queen’s garden party at Buckingham Palace. I couldn’t take it in at first when my mum texted to say a golden envelope had arrived in the post. I had a fantastic time, and the royal invitation just happened to coincide with the day of my 30th birthday.
What is the hardest thing about running Play2Give?
Just keeping the momentum going. There are a lot of charities and we’re quite small and local. Until recently there were still people who hadn’t heard of us which can make it hard to get funding. However we’re becoming more established now which makes it easier and we’re continuing to thrive.
What are your plans for this year?
Play2Give have a lot of events planned. They include Didcot’s Got Talent (with our friends, the Performing Angels) in June, a charity golf day and our second black tie charity ball in September. We’re also working with Sustainable Didcot to run the town summer fayre again in August, plus much more.
You might remember the Thong Rangers, a group of Didcot fundraisers best known for their underwear. Although the Thong Rangers are no longer active some of them have re-formed as the Play2Give Superheroes. They are raising money for us, this time clothed as Batman, Captain America and the like. Later in May many of them will be walking from Didcot to the Oxford Children’s Hospital, shaking buckets as they go. Please donate if you see them!
What do you do in your free time?
Running Play2Give keeps me very busy. I also attend sessions at Headway twice a week, volunteer at the John Radcliffe and go to the gym once a week so there’s never enough time in the week. In my limited spare time I like to spend it with friends and family (and trying to rest as I get easily fatigued due to the brain injury). I’m also going to volunteer at Cornerstone, helping out with shows, which will be exciting.
If you were taking part in Didcot’s Got Talent, what would be your talent?
I love dancing so that’s what it would be. I’m a fan of Strictly and love a good dance at parties.
What do you like most about living in Didcot?
Didcot has changed so much in my life. I remember when there were only shops on the Broadway. Having the Orchard Centre has made a huge change and improved the town centre.
What would you change about Didcot?
It would be lovely if there were a few alternative places to go out in town. The cinema is a great asset but a bowling alley or indoor crazy golf, like in Oxford, would be good. I’d also like Didcot to be a little more disabled access friendly; perhaps some of the paths and roads could be resurfaced to make them safer on foot.
Thank you Andy for sharing your inspirational story. You can find out lots more about Play2Give on their website.
If you missed the first in my series of Didcot residents, pop over and read my post about Jack Cummings, an Afghan veteran and Invictus Games competitor. He also went to school with, and is a good friend of, Andy Baker!