I’ve been lucky enough to interview some top class sportsman since I started writing about sport but I have to say John Willis is one of the most inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure to talk to.
I was given the opportunity to attend a Powerhouse Games session at The Endeavour School in Brentwood a couple of weeks ago. Commissioned by Active Essex and put together by the charity Power2Inspire – I’ll let their words explain just what the principles are behind the games.
At Power2Inspire, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in sport, regardless of body type, age, disability, or ethnicity. So we have created truly inclusive events we call “PowerHouse Games”, delivering adapted sports in schools, organisations, and local community groups, so that everyone can play.
These all-inclusive PowerHouse Games allow people to question their limitations, and transform their aspirations.
The young people from the Endeavour School spent the morning playing adapted sports with girls from the local Brentwood Ursuline Convent High School. At first the 2 groups didn’t mix in, but by the end of the session there were high 5’s all round. What was so wonderful to see was how much both sets of students enjoyed themselves, being 15 and carefree, as the Ursuline girls were, don’t always go hand in hand. There was lots of fun and laughter and interaction.
The morning gave me the opportunity to arrange to meet the founder of this charity – John Willis and a chance to learn about this amazing man.
Coming into this world in 1960 John was born with no arms or legs; now, my mind went straight to Thalidomide as a cause, but no, that wasn’t a factor at all, this was largely ‘just one of those things’. When John had a genetic check as fatherhood loomed it was found that there was between a 10 and 50% chance of a repeat.
Up until the age of 4 or 5 John was in a ‘normal’ nursery school, that was to end when an inspector visited and unbelievably told the establishment and his parents that this wasn’t right as he was disabled. John was sent to a State School – we’d know that as a Special School these days where he basically spent 2 years, in his words, “learning to be disabled”.
When John’s father asked how many O Levels his son would be expected to take he was told to put all notions of qualifications out of his mind, with the response being – ‘Don’t be ridiculous – our students don’t do O Levels!’.
Luckily for John his parents had both the tenacity and the financial ability to move him to Dulwich College Prep School, where the Headmaster did everything in his powers to remove any barriers to John’s learning.
At 10 John’s parents moved to the West Country and he went to Colston’s Prep School where he had a mixed time, at 13 John moved to Kingswood School in Bath, a Methodist School, which was largely for boarders, he was a Day Boy but wow those were long days as he stayed in school to complete his study/homework until as late as 9pm every evening.
John was successful at school and as he was at a Private School he had an extra term to study for the Oxbridge exams once he’d taken his A Levels and he did so with aplomb, gaining a place at Cambridge to study Law.
This is clearly one very determined man and to take two sayings – one from his Mum ‘There’s no such word as can’t’ and another ‘You can take everything away but the ability to make choices’ it’s clear to see that the path John is now on was always going to be an end plan for him.
College was a good experience for John, we spoke about practicalities, the college adapted his room. Well they put an extra shaving point in and gave him a telephone. A rota was put together by his fellow students to help him dress in the morning, made up largely of medical undergraduates a group of around 40 took turns to rock up at 8am. That was a challenge when John was living the life of a student!
In spite of enjoying student life John achieved a 2:1 Law Degree and went on to Law College in Chester. As an aside he coxed a ladies crew while he was there.
His working life started with A year spent at Paisner & Co before John took off travelling for a year, earning himself the title of the ‘Most Courageous Traveller’ with that gallivanting behind him he joined Durrant Piesse who late became Lovell, White, Durrant. John became a Property Litigator and had 5 cases reported in the Law Reports, no mean feat!
A move back to Cambridge saw John marry his wife Lindsay, an International Tax Consultant and join Mills & Reeve, where he practiced for 2 years before becoming disillusioned with law.
The perfect opportunity to make a real difference came up for John when he took on a major project, managing the redevelopmentof the Cambridgeshire village, Papworth Everard.
This 13-year project involved establishing a business park, creating a village centre and facilitating the construction of a new bypass. The result is one of the largest social enterprises in the region, which generates significant financial support for the Papworth Trust, the leading disability charity.
One of the best aspects as far as John is concerned is the library, it brought people together, introduced people who’d been neighbours for 10 years and had never exchanged a word. The old mixed with the young, the disabled with the able bodied. The project not only gave the Papworth Trust an income it also gave a community balance.
John was ready for something new again and set up Short Leg Consulting he undertook a major piece of work helping the East Lincolnshire Mental Health Trust become Navigo Health & Social Care Community Interest Company. That involved travelling to Grimsby once a week, the end result was an organisation with a lot more control.
So, an accomplished man, both in the law and business/charity but how did John come to set up Power2Inspire? There is of course a story that involves a huge challenge behind it; A good friend from Durrant Piesse days challenged John to take part in a Triathlon, he would take the swimming leg. That meant swimming 1500m in open water in under 60 minutes. It will be no surprise to hear that John not only completed the leg but also finished in just over 52 minutes! The team of 3 had set themselves the target of not coming last, they achieved 18th place in a field of 27.
They raised £20K but found it very hard to give the money away, not only was there a gap in the charity provision but a couple John approached made it very difficult to donate, with one wanting him to travel up to Manchester to meet with them.
There were many charities providing sporting opportunities for disabled, but barely any provision to bring those of all abilities together. And this is where Power2Inspire was born!
John has been doing to say the least immense things to raise awareness of the charity, after we’d chatted we went of to Huntingdon to an amazing Gym facility where John performed a variety of gymnastic feats, including using the parallel bars and beam. This was part of his Road2Rio Challenge, where John’s attempting to take part in every Olympic and Paralympic Sport.
Last year John took part in a 50/50 challenge were he’d hoped to swim 50, 1000 metre swims in 50 pools in 100 days. The 50 pools was a challenge too far, but he completed 50 swims in 42 pools in 116 days – Easter got in the way!
I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about both John and Power2Inspire, a wonderful charity carrying out life changing work!