Carla McErlean tells us about her volunteering inspiration and experience

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A 2016 All Ireland Youth Volunteer of the Year- Carla McErlean, from Kilrea Co. Derry is a sixth form student at Loreto College, Coleraine, Co. Derry and was chosen as one of the winners of the 2016 Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards. Since the loss of her best friend in September 2014 to a brain tumour, Carla was motivated to do something out of the ordinary to make her friend proud by raising funds for cancer charities. Carla organised various events with her closest friends in memory of her friend Anna, raising over £11,000 for Cancer Fund for Children. She also coordinated ‘The Goosebury Festival,’ a special event held at Anna’s house which raised over £20,000 for Cancer Fund for Children and the Cancer Unit in Belfast.

"In March 2013, my best friend Anna McAllister was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She fought exceptionally hard until she spread her wings on the 19th September 2014, 18 months after she was first diagnosed. To me, her bubbly personality and radiating smile that shone through no matter how tough her life had got was enough to challenge me to do something out of the ordinary, just to make her proud. A skydive was something Anna had always wanted to do when she got better and so in her memory we went flying with our ‘little goose’. 

On 8th November 2014, in order to raise money for Cancer Fund for Children, a local charity that provides support to children and young people affected by cancer, I took part in a ‘Superhero Skydive’ accompanied by five of my best friends (called ‘The Gooses) and four family members, raising just over £11,000.  Additionally, in May 2015 I helped in the organisation of Goosebury Festival, again hoping to raise funds for both Cancer Fund for Children and the Children’s Cancer Unit, Belfast.  Other fundraising events organised by ‘The Gooses’ include tea parties, a celebration of Anna’s 18th birthday, nights out and street collections. 

Following my fundraising efforts, I humbly received a nomination for the ‘Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards’ from my school Principal, and unbeknown to me, I would be selected as one of the top 20 finalists.  Attending a thoroughly eye-opening awards night in the Solis Lough Eske Hotel, Donegal, in March 2016, I met and got to know some of the most inspirational young people this small country has to offer.  A series of ice-breaker games and giggles later, Niall Breslin (Bressie), gave an extremely humbling speech about his own first-hand experiences with mental health issues, something that has stuck with me ever since.  Without a doubt, the unique experience of participating in the 2016 Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards is something that I will treasure and to top it all off, I was selected as one of two All-Ireland Youth Volunteers of the Year, winning a once in a lifetime all-expenses paid trip to Washington D.C. at the end of April to take part in the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards ceremonies with honourees from all over the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China and Brazil.

For me, volunteering is something that has helped strengthen and inspire me to get through one of the most difficult periods of my life.  Keeping Anna’s memory ignited, as well as helping local children and young people facing similar situations in the process is something that is offered through volunteering and this is enough to encourage me, amongst others, to engage in these fundraising activities, not to mention the personal rewards gained.  I would strongly encourage all young people to get involved with your community and do a little bit, to make a big, big difference.  "