Riding the Waves with Doreen Goodall

Sophie Locke talks to Doreen Goodall from Canalability, Harlow, a registered charity dedicated to working with disabled people, community and youth groups

“I’ve always been the person to look for something new, a challenge I can really get stuck in to”.

“I leave CanalAbility every time knowing we have made a difference to a person, maybe mentally, maybe even emotionally, and knowing that is just the greatest part of my job.”

Canalability boats at Harlow, near Moorhen
Canalability boats at Harlow, near Moorhen

My grandparents moved to Harlow in the early fifties, like many others looking for a prosperous new start after the Second World War. Their fledgling community grew and their families flourished, gradually taking over and propelling Harlow into the town it is today. We might not be a big town, but there is a community spirit that stretches across the cul-de-sacs and playing fields; a friend of a friend will know someone you went to school with and everyone remembers bombing down Tendring Road before the bollards went up.

After growing up between Kingsland and Old Harlow at various Nan’s houses, and living here myself for the last four years, I tend to think I know the town like the back of my hand. Yet, after a lifetime of what I thought I knew about the ins and outs of Harlow, I still find myself surprised at the wonders that take place mere yards from my front door. Pockets of good can be found in the least likely of places, and more often than not, they are the people they don’t make the weekly headlines. I was recently put in touch with CanalAbility, a charity who aims to break down the boundaries people with disabilities face every day. Except, unlike some other charitable organisations, they have come up with an exciting and unique way of smashing these restrictions – they get them to ride, sail and maintain canal boats.

CanalAbility stated back in 1989 when Derek Fenny, the manager of Harlow’s Outdoor Centre, witnessed a young, disabled man being manhandled onto a narrow boat. Family and friends had to carry him and his wheelchair onto the barge, bumping and smashing into the stern, doors and rudder. This was Fenny’s “Eureka” moment, and he quickly set to work on turning his current ‘Floating Classroom’ into an idea to build a fully accessible boat for everyone; wheelchairs and all. Twenty-four years later and on the cusp of their 25th anniversary CanalAbility are bigger and better than ever. Talking to Doreen Goodall, manager at CanalAbility, she hints at what can be expected of their quarter century celebrations. “I cannot give away too much, but we have got plans, big plans and it’s going to be so much fun.”

Doreen has been with the charity for the past seven years, and was initially attracted to the job as it was so far removed from her previous career at IBM – International Business Machines Corporation. In one swift decision, Doreen went from “flying around the world” to a Harlow based charity. And she maintains it’s the best decision she’s ever made. “I’ve always been the person to look for something new, a challenge I can really get stuck in to. When I saw an advert for a Charity Project Manager I thought, here we go, here’s my new adventure.” Doreen even jokes now that the day she leaves is when her famous pink t-shirts turn white.

Her day-to-day routine primarily consists of organising their 120 volunteers, who keep their three wide beam canal boats in tip top condition. “Anyone and everyone help us here at CanalAbility. We range from people who maintain the boats to skippers and crew who are trained to a national standard. We all bring something unique to the team.”

Not only do their volunteers of professional boatmen give the charity extreme kudos, but the organisation even took part in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and their Patron is none other than Paralympic wheelchair racer, Anne Wafula Strike. Strike is quick to sing the charity’s praises and regularly talks about them on her personal Facebook page. Only last November Strike enjoyed a day captaining one of their boats. (You can read about it here at CanalAbility’s official blog http://canalability.wordpress.com/tag/anne-wafula-strike/ ) But for Doreen, some of her more magical moments revolve around the very people this charity was set out to benefit. When asked to think of her most favourable memories, she is caught out. “There are just so many. I leave CanalAbility every time knowing we have made a difference to a person, maybe mentally, maybe even emotionally, and knowing that is just the greatest part of my job.” Doreen does however, have a few very specific recollections that can make even the hardest of hearts melt. “We had one gentleman who had suffered a stroke many years ago and was nervous of being aboard a boat. I don’t know if he didn’t feel safe or just uneasy in the situation, but one our trustees managed to coax him into taking control of the tiller. The smile on that man’s face will stay with me forever, especially after announcing that in 10 years this was the most he had ever felt in charge.”

CanalAbility maintains that everyone who boards their boats should get involved, be it steering, operating locks or making the tea. It’s this very ethos that has led them to be the success that they are, and why their clients keep coming back for a day out on the river. “As already mentioned, we do a lot of work with people who have special needs or learning disabilities. One afternoon we had a young lady who was adamant she would not step foot on the boat, and was screaming for near to an hour. Our crew eventually convinced her that this was an opportunity she could not surpass, and by the time she returned, she was screaming that she never wanted to leave them or the boat.”

For Doreen and many of the volunteers that help at CanalAbility, the social prescription of the boats, the calming effects of the water, and the knowledge of aiding others is what brings them back every day. How many of us can say their daily job is as worthwhile as building the confidence and self-esteem of every person they interact with? “We love what we do, and aren’t afraid to confront new obstacles as a charity. We aim to have themed trips aboard the boats and who knows; we could expand and have a whole fleet of them one day.”

Talking to Doreen made me realise that not only is Harlow home to some truly amazing work, but that you need to constantly defy your own boundaries. If one woman so petrified of water could have such a fabulous afternoon aboard a boat, then why can’t we take that step in looking for a new job, a new home or trying a new cuisine? I dare you all this week to step out of your comfort zone and to challenge your everyday routine, because if I have learnt anything from Doreen Goodall, it will make you a happier and more content person that you ever thought possible.

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