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On Sunday 31st January 2021, The Great Connection Festival is taking place between 2 pm – 6 pm. The innovative event is delivered through Zoom, aiming to bring people together virtually across 5 channels: Talks, Movement, Arts, Music and Conversation. Proceeds from the festival go to Olly’s Future which is a charity founded in memory of Olly Hare, whose aims are to prevent suicide and promote better mental wellbeing.

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Olly Hare with his very close friend Ayesha.

The festival features 32+ speakers, musicians, fitness instructors, comedians and artists including the immersive dance party, Morninggloryville, and award-winning theatre company, Les Enfants Terribles. Now into our third lockdown, there’s never been a more crucial time to feel connected and to prioritise our mental health.

Morning Gloryville is an immersive morning dance party. Pioneering sober morning raves.
Les Enfants HQ delve into their creative minds and imaginations to produce new pieces of innovative immersive theatre fit for everyone to enjoy and indulge in during these testing times.

Tickets for The Great Connection Festival can be purchased following the link: https://www.thegreatconnectionfestival.com/

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Pictured: Aliza Ayaz

Tell us about the acts of altruism you’ve done, and why you felt the need to help others.

When the Covid-19 crisis struck, my family immediately started raising funds to provide support to the jobless, whereas my friends and I facilitated distance learning laptops and iPads for students and also meals for front line workers.

I just wanted to do something. I wasn’t thinking about small-versus-big impact. I wasn’t quantifying how many peoples’ lives I was changing. I am profoundly grateful for my subconscious drive to think about others – a nature that has been passed on to me over generations of my family, through my aunts and uncles, through the stories of my grandparents who I never met.

Having studied the social determinants of health, I knew that being active is incredibly important—physically, mentally, and spiritually. So I would happily take a bunch of kids from around where I was staying for some physical activity and also tutor them when I could. We all know that parents have been increasingly overworked amidst the crisis; they have had to amplify their roles as teachers, cleaners, carers all at once and this impacts their mental health. I couldn’t just sit knowing this was a potential hazard. I thought “prevention is better than cure” and before I knew it, I was prioritising altruism above my academic workload because it was needed. And I could push myself just enough to afford that.

Why do you think you were nominated for the Oliver Hare Altruism Award?

I think because for me, saying “No” to pitching in to support others takes a lot more energy. It’s a lot easier to say “yes.” It is my mother, Dr. Rana Najmi’s leadership and motivation that inspired me to be involved with my community wherever I am. For that, I would love to say thank you.

While 2020 has been a challenging year for us all, this Award was a great reminder on how much we have braved and persevered as individuals, as a society and even my organisation – the Climate Action Society. It taught me how much resilience is a part of my DNA, and most importantly, how I have always been working towards the same goal: to improve and inspire the lives of those around us.

Why do you think it’s important to be an altruistic individual?

That’s easy. Because everyone wants a good answer to “Can I live a life where I can look forward to looking back?”

Why would you recommend others to also embrace their altruistic nature?

Over the past few weeks I have had many conversations with friends, entrepreneurs, artists and my team around the topic of how to move forward during difficult times, especially when they are unforeseen. In these moments, it is so important to focus on compassion and on your true north, whether that’s your personal why and purpose or your company’s mission and vision to help ground yourself, remember what really matters and what your journey is.

I understand that philanthropy can be just as affected by the coronavirus pandemic as anything else. There’s going to have to be more self-reliance on staying true to your voluntary obligations. It’s already difficult; we humans love to procrastinate. In my family, one of the things we are trying to teach is self-reliance, saying, “Why do you do it? Do it for you.” In hard times, your true north and compassion (towards yourself and to others) becomes that much more important to follow.

What do you hope to do in the future to make positive change (whether big or small)?

In 2012, I was five days into final exams and I got a heart breaking phone call that my grandfather had passed on. I went to the hospital to be with my family. I was at home for three days, and they told me to go back to school. The first day back, I was continually drifting during classes and it hit me that my grandfather was no longer here. But I could still keep his spirit alive if I practised his generous actions and altruistic attitude. So, many years later, I have been unable to find anything that isn’t better if you take that mantra and slap it on it.

There are choices in life; there is a way to make the “altruistic” decision with every decision we make. I hope I can be an example through what has led me to where I am today. This may be through my continuing role as an advocate for health equity or diversity & inclusion.

Personally, I want to be dedicated to giving back to the community alongside fulfilling my educational and career aspirations. My parents are the co-founders of various community fundraisers which raise money for education, bonded labourers and basic utilities. I want to replicate.

Thank you to UCL Volunteering Service!

The 90-minute online training session we have created in partnership with Start the Conversation (suicide prevention education) in response to Covid-19 – Talking about Suicide: Ten Tools – is proving so popular, that more organisations are now requesting private training sessions for their teams.

And because these private sessions are for closed groups, we can tailor the training to make it relevant to your specific organisation and staff needs. 

To enquire about availability and book a session, email [email protected]

We’ve reflected heavily on the events of the past two weeks that have highlighted the structural racism still rife throughout society. This has sparked constructive dialogue at Olly’s Future around ways we can better address and embed diversity and inclusion initiatives in our suicide prevention work. We have realised there is so much more we can and need to do to take a more actively anti-racist and anti-discriminatory approach, and we are taking steps to implement changes immediately.

We will be establishing a Diversity & Inclusion working group whose first task will be to add a section on D&I in our strategy document so that considerations on diversifying our work and our reach will be integrated throughout our ethos. We will be adding D&I as a standing agenda point in our monthly meetings so that we can share new ideas and hold ourselves to account on our progress. In the coming weeks, we will also be reaching out to charities that work with BAME and marginalised communities to direct them to our suicide prevention training and events, and diversify the groups we work with. We look forward to sharing more updates in this space with you soon.

We encourage other charities and community organisations to reflect on their own approach and take steps to diversify their work to become more inclusive and amplify the voices of marginalised communities.

Olly’s Future stands with the Black community and firmly against racism and discrimination of any kind today and every day. We are determined to play our part in making a lasting change, something we think that Olly would have been proud of.

Love and light to you all x

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Olly’s Future was proud to donate £2,500 to the Support After Suicide Partnership recently. Ann Feloy, Founder, handed the cheque to Hamish Elvidge at one of their meetings in December 2019.

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It’s been almost two weeks since I organised and co-hosted our third annual MENtal health open mic night, and I’m still beaming.

In March 2017, a month after Olly’s passing, I was faced with a challenge. I had met and had heard about other young people who were struggling with their mental health. Battling feelings of anxiety and depression, often triggered or made worse by their studies, students did not have an outlet for their emotions and kept things bottled up. It didn’t help that UCL’s mental health services were massively under-funded, and senior management seemed unwilling to accept or even acknowledge the university’s shocking suicide problem.

After Olly’s passing, I remember I approached UCL’s Student Psychological and Counselling Services seeking support. I’d never really dealt with bereavement before, not least the unexpected passing of a close friend. I emailed, explaining the situation, only to be told I had to wait six weeks to be seen.

This prompted me to think. Surely there were many more students like me who had no choice but to wait out the pain. I realised I was right. There were other students who had been bereaved, who were feeling anxious, depressed and even suicidal whom the university’s dire mental health provisions were failing.

People were bottling up their emotions, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. A six-week waiting list left you on your own to battle your demons. It just didn’t seem fair to me.

I wanted to create a platform for students to come together to speak up about their experiences, especially young men. To help them realise that they’re not alone. That there are people who care, and more importantly, people who want to listen to their story.

I collaborated with UCL’s Welfare and International Officer at the time, and we created Olly’s Future and Heads Up’s first-ever MENtal health open mic might in March 2017, aimed specifically at breaking the stigma around young men speaking up about their mental health. We didn’t know what to expect. We’d spent the weeks preceding the event telling as many people as possible to come along and share their stories, be it through spoken word, poetry, singing, or even just speaking their mind. We’d advertised the event on Facebook, through departmental mailing lists, and had plastered UCL’s walls with posters.

Around 60 people attended the open mic night, with the audience made up of students and young professionals. I remember looking out across the room, seeing people squished all the way to the back like sardines, who remained standing throughout the entire thing because there weren’t enough chairs for everyone that came along.

It was clear to me that there was a real need for an event like this.

And so we hosted the event the year after.

I remember a girl bravely coming up on stage, saying that she’d seen the event pop up on her Facebook timeline. At the time she wasn’t even sure if she was going to come, let alone come up on stage and share her story. She sat on the chair, and sobbed for a very, very long time. It was the first time she’d ever really acknowledged what she’d been going through. It was the first time she’d ever opened up to anyone about her mental health, not even to a friend or a family member. Yet she opened up to a room full of strangers.

That was when I realised the power of an open mic night.

By providing a platform for students to come together to speak, you’re telling them we’re here. You have a story and we’re here to listen.

This year we hosted our third MENtal health open mic night. And it was our most inspiring and empowering event yet. We heard mainly from male speakers who spoke on a variety of different topics including anxiety, anorexia and mental health from BAME and disabled perspectives, and from female speakers who spoke about depression, eating disorders and grief.

My heart warmed when one after the other, speakers ended their story with a Q&A session with audience members asking them how they had dealt with relapses and setbacks. It wasn’t a one-way dialogue. It was a conversation.

A male speaker who on the outset seemed typically “manly” (whatever that means…), opened up about how he had been battling with suicidal thoughts and had made several attempts on his life. He spoke with bravery, passion and eloquence. He told us that sport was an outlet, that jiu jitsu had saved his life. It allowed him to focus his negative energies on something tangible, on something productive. Here he had met his coach, who was now a close friend and a mentor, and someone who had experienced the same things that he’d been going through. He encouraged people to find their outlet. To find their passion, and to use it as an anchor to help them fight their darkest feelings.

On the surface many of our male speakers had typical “masculine” traits – tall, broad and bearded – characteristics that are often associated with stoicism. Yet together we had created an environment where these young men felt comfortable enough to open up, and even cry to a room of strangers. The courage and grace these young men had in opening up about their intimate experiences was so moving.

It made me think.

Perhaps the problem is not that these “macho men” are unable or even unwilling to talk about their feelings. Perhaps we’re the ones failing them by not providing them with an outlet to speak, to open up.

Hosting the open mic night for the last three years has opened my eyes. It’s made me realise that if you provide young men with a platform to speak, and if you create an open, non-judgemental and warm environment where they feel supported, then you will hear their stories. Every single last inch of the pain that they’ve been holding in up until this moment.

I came away from this year’s event feeling inspired, empowered and hopeful for the future. It made me realise that when people come together, we can change things.

Don’t wait for other people to act, not least the ones who are supposed to be looking after your best interests. Because often they won’t.

I’d encourage students to come together to organise initiatives like this. Open mic nights provide a rare and unique opportunity for students to speak up about their mental health. They’re invaluable.

**

Olly and I studied History together at UCL and he was such a huge part of my time at university, as he was to so many of his friends. Olly graduated with a First in 2016, and he was someone who sought opportunities wherever we went – from being involved in the Dance Society, to becoming fluent in French and German, and even taking on a compering role in the Jazz Society’s show at the Adelphi Theatre, among many, many other countless achievements!

After Olly passed away, friends and family were struck with a huge hole. Olly radiated so much love, warmth and positivity. It’s crazy how that can all be taken away in a split second.

We came together to form Olly’s Future to support young people who are experiencing similar things that Olly felt, especially young men, who are so often reluctant to open about how they’re really feeling. We want to show young people that they are not alone, that they’re never alone. By funding and delivering suicide prevention training, we hope to establish a strong framework of people all over the UK who are fully trained to provide young people with the support needed to help save their lives.

Olly’s Future is Olly’s legacy. And we hope to spread his Love & Light through our work, so that the love, warmth and positivity Olly radiated in our lives endures in the lives of others.

**

I opened up this year’s open mic night by saying,

“I know it’s a daunting prospect – the thought of coming up on stage speaking to a room full of strangers about how you feel. But look around. Every single person who is here today is here because they care, here because they want to listen to your story.”

We all have a story. And I believe we have a duty to provide young people, especially young men, with the space to open up.

To laugh. To cry. To heal.

Together.

Ayesha Begum