Paula Massey

Paula Massey of Guardians for Heroes CIC tells us about how her community project is freeing up hospital beds, upskilling veterans and helping the environment, all in one fell swoop.

How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?

I have mental health issues. There are days when I know what I’ve got to do, and the work that I actually do keeps my mind focused, whether it’s painting or some sort of craft. And there are also days when I don’t want to get out of bed. You know that you have to get out and that when you do, you’ll feel better. But often I don’t get to sleep until four or five in the morning, and then I have trouble getting up.

Tell us a little about your business.

We are Guardians for Heroes, Veterans Helping Veterans, which is a community interest company. It was set up to support veterans with their mental health and wellbeing through woodwork, arts and craft.

We offer volunteer positions and have amazing referral partners for support with employment opportunities.

Alongside the activities, we save mobility aids from being scrapped. Our veterans and volunteers are involved in the entire process of cleaning, repairing, refurbishing and upcycling preloved equipment. This will allow them to develop a wide range of professional and personal skills, as well as helping with their overall health and wellbeing and reducing social isolation. The service we are giving means we are helping the environment by using the circular economy, which in turn is helping to reduce falls in a person’s home, reducing hospital visits and allowing people to leave hospital sooner and freeing up hospital beds.

We also offer upskill opportunities for individuals who may have been out of the workforce for many years, and disabled people including teenagers.

Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.

It came about due to my lived experience of mental health: as I mentioned, it’s easier for me when I’m actually physically doing something. Plus, it brings people out into an open space, gives them skills, breaks down social isolation, and integrates them with their community.

I was in hospital and I became aware that other patients on the ward couldn’t be discharged because the mobility aids they needed at home weren’t available, leading to beds being blocked for days.

At the same time, I became aware that there are skips and warehouses throughout the UK, piled high with abandoned medical aids such as walking frames, crutches, and wheelchairs, some of which have never been used off-carpet.

We take in mobility equipment that is otherwise going to be discarded, refurbish it and give it to other people in the community who need it. It benefits the people who learn new skills giving the equipment a new lease of life, it frees up hospital beds, and it’s good for the environment.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

At the moment, we’re self-funding, living off nothing and battling to get funding to pay for the things that we do.

I pay for everything myself and I haven’t had an income in eight years. I’m currently using money from an inheritance from my mother and from a divorce settlement, and that’s what’s kept me going. The challenge is getting three years of rent and utilities, and then I can work on getting a wage to carry on doing what I’m doing and concentrate on making things to sell so it becomes self-sustaining.

The Guardians for Heroes workshop

What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?

A lot of veterans have got mental health issues or PTSD. They want to work and would like to start up businesses, but no two days are ever the same when you have mental health difficulties. More needs to be done to acknowledge the hidden disabilities, to give everyone a chance.

I have a dear friend, Marcus, who set up a company reviewing vehicles for wheelchair users. He was very successful and helping hundreds of people by going to car dealerships and driving different style cars. Sadly, due to the pain Marcus was experiencing whilst moving from wheelchair to car, it became clear he could no longer continue to give the brilliant service he had always given. I would personally say, when setting up a business, look at things you can do without exacerbating disabilities, and never be afraid to ask for help and advice.

Mobility aids at the Guardians for Heroes workshop

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

Apart from my daughter, it would be the people that I’ve helped over the years since we set this up. We’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of people with clothing, furniture, housewares, and so on. We’ve given furniture to people who were homeless. No one’s in this to get awards.

Remembrance display by Guardians for Heroes CIC

If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?

That people could see the hidden disabilities. Since I’ve had brain surgery, I struggle with people crowding around me. If there’s a bit of distance between us, I’m fine. But recently I went to a network meeting for local community members. I was okay while I sat at the table some distance away, but as soon as I was crowded by people, I went in within myself and started to get upset. If I go shopping, there are so many people who know me in the community because of all the community work that I do, and I get emotional and overwhelmed when lots of people come up to me.

Who or what inspires you?

Guardians for Heroes are proud to have Karl Gilmore, from Transport for Wales, and Lisa McAteer, from Balfour Beatty, as our inspiration. Their kindness and belief, in myself personally, and how Guardians for Heroes is helping hundreds of individuals a year – without their support I personally don’t think I would be here now.

Finally, what inspires me to carry on is the difference we make to people’s lives.