A passionate vision
Published: 10 Dec 2015
Name: NEIL SKENE
Job title: FUND-RAISING CO-ORDINATOR
Company: NORTH EAST SENSORY SERVICES (NESS)
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WITH NESS FOR?
I’ve been with the organisation for 18 years when it was Grampian Society for the Blind and then due to the change in contracts, we diversified and took on services for the deaf and hard of hearing as well.
AND HAS IT ALWAYS BEEN THE FUNDRAISING SIDE YOU HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH?
Always. I started as the assistant fundraiser following a spell as a volunteer.
SO HOW DID YOU DISCOVER NESS?
Well I was a client being blind myself, it was the local support. How I got into the role was purely by accident really.
I used to work at Glencraft as an upholsterer and there was a chap who worked there previously who had heard about me being a youngster with plenty of life about me, but he saw something in me and asked if I fancied doing some hillwalking and stuff like that which I didn’t really fancy. That was healthy and outdoor stuff and I wasn’t really into that.
But I ended up loving it. He ended up organising a really big sponsored walk which he got me involved in including the organisation side so I got to see how it all came together and that was done for the Grampian Society for the Blind. He was called Duncan Simpson, who was also blind.
SO WHAT SORT OF THING DID YOU LEARN ABOUT?
Well it was a big walk around the borders of the Grampian region which involved three or four days through the Cairngorms so there was meetings, stuff about getting permission to cross different land and things like that. It was really interesting.
I was a volunteer for that. Duncan worked at the society at the time and I think the fundraiser in place then was just leaving and I said, half tongue-in-cheek, do you think they’d consider a blind person for the job?
They replied, “no idea, but there’s no harm in trying”. I didn’t get the actual job but the chief executive at the time, Jon Bailey, had the foresight to say you have got limited experience but if we gave you an assistant post to learn and grow would you be interested? And 18 years on I’m still here.
SO WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE YOU GO FROM VOLUNTEERING AT THAT ONE EVENT TO MAKING FUNDRAISING YOUR CAREER?
I did enjoy my time at Glencraft, it played an important part in my learning and building my confidence but I think I got bored. I wanted something more and to push myself.
WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER DID YOU HAVE AN IDEA OF WHAT YOU WANTED TO BE?
No, because I lost my sight when I was in my early- to mid-teens and I never had any career ideas then.
HOW DID YOU LOSE YOUR SIGHT?
I’ve got glaucoma. I was born with it and it just gradually got worse and worse. At primary school I was ok, I could see the blackboard, but I had to sit in the front. By secondary school it got worse and during the last couple of years I just bluffed my way through it.
I hardly did any work. I don’t think the school could cope with my disability either. There was very little support in those days which is why I am so passionate about NESS and the support it offers for young people. If I had been in that position now it would be totally different. The support is there from day one.
The last few years at school were hard. School can be hard if you’ve got any sort of differences, kids pick on that straight away. I hated secondary school. But then going to Glencraft and getting all the wildness out of my system was brilliant.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU DIDN’T HAVE ANY CAREER AMBITIONS?
I just never thought about it really. I was just young and totally oblivious to my future, I never had any thoughts about it at all. There were so many myths in those days, people thought you are blind, what can you do? Again if NESS had been there, we’ve got employment support.
My first-ever job was an assistant janitor at the deaf school. They thought obviously being blind a deaf school would be the best way to go which was just nuts.
All that happened there was the deaf kids made fun of me and stole my buckets. I had to wash windows, it was just nonsense. Another job that I was offered was at Clinterty College, to train as a farmer. Great career advice. I could have been the world’s first blind farmer – with no fingers!
YOU MENTIONED GLENCRAFT HELPED WITH YOUR CONFIDENCE. HOW HAS A JOB AT NESS HELPED YOU?
It’s just been a gradual progression. The passion was there because I can see the difference NESS makes. That’s the biggest drive for me. Because of what I experienced, I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And I appreciate the opportunities NESS has given me.
With the fundraising side, you’ve got a free hand to a certain extent. I can come up with any events and you just go with them. There have been a lot of opportunities to meet my heroes and at the same time I am raising money for something I really believe in.
HAVE YOU GOT A FAVOURITE EVENT THAT YOU WERE IN CHARGE OF THAT YOU ARE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF?
We had Willie Miller and Neil Cooper at an event at Ardoe one time. I remember I had put it all together and there were 300 folk coming. I was standing in a corridor leading to the ballroom and you can use that to lead people to the top table and I remember standing next to Willie Miller who is a hero of mine and hearing the buzz in the room and just thinking God Almighty, I put this together.
And what an adrenaline rush that gives you. It is funny that, even now, having organised four annual black tie balls for Ness, I still get a huge buzz from this one event and go through a whole range of emotions on the lead-up and during the evening too, but when you see totals in the range of £25k being raised, the final emotion is one of immense pride both personal, but also for the generosity of the north-east people who I hold very dear.
IN YOUR SPARE TIME, YOU ARE A STAND-UP COMEDIAN. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THAT?
Just two or three years. Through doing presentations at work, I’ve always tried to put a bit of humour into it, even doing proper official presentations. If you can get the audience to laugh, they are bound to remember it more. So my material is just based on experiences.
SO WHERE DO YOU DO IT?
I do it all over. Breakneck Comedy gave me my first opportunity. It was John McRuvie from Original 106 that pushed me. I was asked as a former employee of Glencraft to do a five-minute presentation at a dinner and John was the actual comedian that night. He came up to me when I finished and said “have you ever thought of doing comedy properly?” I said, “no” and he said “well it’s time you did, you are a natural”.
DO YOU GET NERVOUS BEFORE SHOWS?
Every comedian gets nervous at shows until you get the first couple of laughs. I always try and do an ice-breaker when I go up because, obviously, being blind, I think it is a worry for the audience sometimes. They might be thinking, can we really laugh at that guy? The good thing with a comedy club is that they are totally un-PC. I think it’s a chance for everybody to relax.
NESS is holding its annual fundraising ball on Saturday, March 5, 2016 at the Marcliffe Hotel & Spa. Expect a carnival atmosphere with music, dancing, drums and more. For tickets contact Neil Skene at NESS on 0845 27 12345.