Ipswich Charity worker, Justin Ballantyne (30), is preparing for his first St Elizabeth Hospice Midnight Walk on Saturday 16th May, but without his guide-dog Koko!
Justin, who is severely sight-impaired, has registered to complete the 13 mile route and has already exceeded his £200 target, he said: “I thought I’d start low and gain what I believed I could achieve.”
In fact, money given so far is an impressive £250 and still rising.
Having recently retired his 10 year-old guide-dog ‘Chippy’ after seven and a half years’ service, Koko has slipped into her new role effortlessly.
Justin laughs: “She has a really funky attitude; I can sometimes sense her giving me such a look as if to say, ‘Really?’”
However, he won’t be guided by her on the night as Justin feels that, at only two years old and very recently qualified (October 2014) it all might prove too much for her.
Justin explains: “It’s a long time over a period when she will expect to be asleep. The noise and numbers of people participating could make it unsafe for her.”
Instead, Justin and St Elizabeth Hospice have organised for him to be helped by seven volunteers and staff from ‘My Guide’, a charity he volunteers for which helps visually and hearing-impaired people to access a full and independent life.
Justin became an Ambassador for the charity in Ipswich two years’ ago and works for them now two days a week as well as at St Elizabeth Hospice Retail Centre in Holywells Road every Friday.
His guides include Practice Manager, Alex Catling, who is doing the warm up and starting the course with him. Other guides include: Ruth Cousins, a Rehabilitation worker; Linda Masterson, a Community Care Practitioner; Teresa Bailey, a Business Support Officer and two ‘My Guide’ volunteers.
“We’ve drawn up the route-map and positioned my helpers along the route at two-mile intervals, so it’s only me who is walking the full 13 miles!”
He has organised it so that most of the volunteers, who are ‘My Guide’-trained, are colleagues who live somewhere along the 13 mile route, his final guides being a couple who will drop Justin home on their way back.
By his own admission, Justin is known as “quite a character” in the St Elizabeth Hospice shop, where he works primarily on the shop floor, replenishing stock and working on displays.
“We get many regular customers, some returning daily. I think that Koko is a particular draw to many customers; she has her own sleeping bag and bowl by the counter and her presence certainly gets people talking.”
Justin’s sight deteriorated very rapidly when he was seventeen: “I happened to be randomly working for the RNIB as a summer job when one night, I cried out in pain as my eyes began to hurt really badly. I was diagnosed with Uevitis, which is inflammation of the optic nerve and quickly lost my central vision.
Through a number of operations, I have regained some further peripheral vision; whilst colours are bolder, details are not clear.”
Justin was first aware of the St Elizabeth Hospice Midnight Walk last year when he saw lights passing by his flat window, as he lived on the main route. Since volunteering for the Hospice, Justin decided that he’d like to participate this time.
He has every intention of recreating the Jack Sparrow look which he has previously managed and has even bought new trainers for the occasion!
His training regime is walking to and from work each day with Koko and he has plans to run the route next year.