By Hannah Thorley
We recently had the pleasure of speaking to Claire from the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF), who is leading the Happy Women Together – Walking Challenge, this August – where a group of nine women will be climbing the three highest peaks in the UK. But this is a challenge with a difference.
Challenge at a Glance
The nine women partaking are survivors of human cruelty and most of whom are also completely new to hiking. These women are bravely overcoming their own mental and physical barriers in order to train for and complete this challenge. It has all been made possible so far, thanks to the dedicated HBF team and Tribe (supporting partners) and the encouragement and support that the women themselves have shown one another.
Below you will discover the source of Claire’s inspiration for setting up this challenge, the difficulties that they’ve come across and one’s possibly yet to encounter, and the benefits that they’ve already gained. Plus, hiking tips and tricks to inspire you towards taking the first steps of your own adventure.
What was your personal motivation behind setting up the ‘Happy Women Together’ group?
My motivation was to do with the bike ride that I went on, where I cycled from London to Japan, with my partner. It started off as a 9 month trip and then turned into 18 months! We also did it unsupported, so there was a lot of wild camping involved.
It was when I got back (and this may sound cliché) that I realised what a life changing trip it had actually been. Through challenging myself I now realise where my boundaries lie, and what my weaknesses and strengths are. I found it an incredible experience. The challenge both physically and mentally was something really special, that I had never really done before. Quickly these two things became my two passions. Mental health and helping people to become more present and reconnect to nature, as I think that this has such a positive impact on our wellbeing.
I also always took for granted that the outdoors is a free resource for everyone. Thinking that everyone can easily go out walking and hiking. But I gradually started realising that this isn’t always the case. There are massive barriers in the way for many from accessing these resources. From practical ones, like financing and transport, to lack of confidence or lack of role models. And so I knew that I would really love to start a group to encourage more people to get out into the great outdoors and break down those barriers!
Have there been any difficulties with this project?
It’s been a steep learning curve! There’s been a lot of difficulties. One of my strengths as a person is being able to push forward ideas and get them moving, but one of my weaknesses is that I’m not very detail orientated – more of a big picture person! So once I started embarking on this project I realised just how many details I hadn’t initially thought of. As the women in the group are asylum seekers and refugees, there’s a lot going on in their personal lives that impacts their ability to regularly come to the group meet ups. Such as legal problems with their cases and dealing with the threat of being made homeless. So it has been hard to manage that group dynamic, what with so many other things going on. Although (despite this) they’ve all been doing amazingly well in attending!
There’s also things like physical health problems, different medication needs, motivation and mental health issues. Funding the project was something that I was really worried about, but the process went far easier than I was expecting! As I think people saw the value in this project.
Managing photography has been another one of the challenges due to the women’s rights to not have their photos taken. In this group some of the women have been trafficked and are at risk of being trafficked again – so there is quite a big danger aspect for some photos being on social media.
How will the women be supported throughout the preparation stages and the hike itself?
We’ve been doing a monthly hike in training, which has become increasingly harder as the months have gone on. We did one in June which was 15km and they’re all coming along massively in their physical fitness. We have physical therapists that are helping the women to come up with training schedules in between the hike to also help build-up their fitness levels.
We are not sure how it will go on the day, there is an element of uncertainty around that. But there’s been a really high level of commitment shown by all the women. We also decided to create a contract (developed with our therapists at HBF) explaining what we expected of them (such as the minimum number of walks that they had to attend to come on the challenge itself) as we thought that it would be best for their own safety – to ensure that they will be hiking fit to complete the challenge. It is more of a therapy contract and also includes what they can expect from us in return. And to press upon them what a big challenge this will be – as it’s not really a holiday, it’s more than that!
|“It was an amazing day out for me, I haven’t had this much fun and laughter in a long time, I met very amazing ladies today. I can’t stress it enough, it was wonderful and I am looking forward to more of it. I am home with my feet up now.”|
Are there specific challenges that you predict to encounter on the hike?
My biggest concerns are that on top of all the physical requirements, it’s a very big change from what these women are used to. They’ll all be sharing rooms with one another, eating different food from what they’re used to, staying in different places than normal and dealing with their PTSD symptoms, including nightmares.
So just generally, managing the differing needs of group members and finding appropriate ways of communicating this to each other. As I’m aware that spending a lot of time with others in a confined space can be difficult for anyone and when you add in mental health problems, it increases some of these difficulties. Although there is a really lovely group dynamic as it is.
We recently held a workshop to try to pre-empt a lot of what might come up and also to normalise the idea that people deal with things differently and need different amounts of alone time. We had an open forum to encourage everyone to discuss what they were worried about, any questions that they had and how they’d deal with difficulties as they arise. We also have two members of the therapy team that will be on hand during the hikes and are currently developing therapy plans, to identify triggers for each person and to have grounding techniques prepared if the women dissociate.
Can you identify a main factor that has most helped to improve the women’s confidence?
The major thing is feeling part of a group with other women, who they feel very close to, which for them is a huge deal as they don’t have a family over here. There is this feeling of being supported and safe enough to be pushed outside their comfort zone and they achieve real feelings of pride when they do.
I think there’s something powerful about pushing the women outside their comfort zone. They haven’t done this type of thing before and didn’t think that they could do it. They’re walking really far, sometimes having to go over styles and walking through streams. When they see an obstacle, they feel like they can’t do it, but they do!
“Claire… You just don’t know how much this group gets the best of me out, I feel like I’m living again. I have never been among a group of women with so much peace and joy. Best thing ever. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule for us. You owe us nothing but yet your dedication is one out of this world. God bless you”
Can you name the benefits so far?
At the end of each hike we go around the group and do something called ‘The Flower’. With the flower being something positive that happened during the walk, the thorn being something challenging during the day and the seed representing the hopes for the future. One of the things that a lot of the women talk about (during this) is how the walks and this group have had a really positive impact on their mood.
Also I believe that there are other ways of talking to people than traditional talking therapy. When we’re on the hike it can often bring up memories. Both positive and negative. In this way it brings up emotions but in a more natural way, taking the focus away from you and making you feel more comfortable.
What do you next envisage for the group after the challenge is completed?
We’ve thought about how to keep this going, but in a different way, so that it’s not a cliff edge for the women and that the support is not all suddenly gone. So we’re looking into setting up a mentoring scheme with women who are quite active generally and for them to meet up with women from the group. To encourage them to keep going for walks and access free things in their community and to set them up with other groups in the community as well. With this, we would like to set something up with a bit more longevity.
We have also discussed setting up a smaller walking group within the Helen Bamber Foundation, but this one will be quite different as it will start at the HBF offices and with shorter walks, around an hour long.
Top tips for a beginner to hiking?
If you’re lacking in confidence, then there’s lots of walking groups that you can join, which are a great way to get you started. Some are run by charities like Mind or there are many other walking groups in general. Also try Adventure Queens (who provide practical information, tips and advice on all things wild camping and the great outdoors!). I’d say start small and just increase the distance little by little.
Where are your favourite locations for hiking in the UK or abroad?
I’m a big fan of the South West and always have been, as I grew up there. So a hike along the coast in some way is an ideal location for me. Such as in Dorset (try Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door), Devon or Cornwall area. And ideally somewhere that ends up with a pub! Also, if you’re based in London, you can easily access some great walks by the tube such as Epping forest and the Chiltern Hills.
What are the ways that people can get involved in order to support the women with their hike?
It would be great if people wanted to get in contact about becoming mentors, or if they have any suggestions or comments or would just like volunteer their time. To get in touch, please contact Claire via the Helen Bamber Foundation.
We are hoping to widen it out as well. We’re starting off by piloting the mentoring scheme with the women from the group but then open out the mentoring scheme to other clients of HBF, as in men also.
There is also the Just Giving page where people can still donate. As all the funds needed for the walking challenge has been raised, all donations now are specifically for helping with integration for clients of HBF, such as through education courses and outdoor activities. Please see: https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/happywomentogether
*Happy Women Together – Walking Challenge is half funded by Tribe. A performance nutrition company, with a charitable section supporting the fight against human trafficking.
Happy Women Together Blog
To view the women’s progress, you can visit the Happy Women Together blog page that was written and created by the women themselves. They have documented a couple of their training hikes so far, with plans to continue to add to this page, so keep your eyes peeled!