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Want to climb a rock wall but you use a wheelchair – no problem, just do it, writes Tony Gearing Founder of YOPEY the youth charity.  

That’s the philosophy of Luton teenager Rhys Crownshaw, born with spina bifida and severe mobility problems but whose attitude to life and his quiet counsel of younger scouts inspires and encourages others, particularly those with disabilities. Rhys, who has progressed up the scouting ladder from Beaver to Explorer and Young Leader, now has his sights set on higher things – perhaps leading his own scout troop or running a theatre company?

In the meantime he has reached new heights, scaling a seven-metre climbing wall at a Luton-based activity centre. Quite a feat when you can’t use your legs.    The 17-year-old, of Bank Close, is in a competition that hails the ‘giving to others’ of Bedfordshire’s younger generation after being nominated for the Atlas Converting Young People of the Year awards or ‘YOPEYs’ – Oscars for young people who ‘give to others’. He has just been shortlisted for an award at a prestigious ceremony in Cambridge in November. 

The annual contest has over £1000 to be won by Bedfordshire young people who are positive role models. There will be at least two Beds Young People of the Year. A senior YOPEY, aged 17-25, winning £500, and a junior YOPEY, aged 10-16, winning £300. Either prize can be won by an individual or group and the winners have to invest most of their winnings in their good cause but can keep £100 to treat themselves. There will also be several £100 runners-up prizes.

Rhys was nominated by Gary Sturrock, Leader of Leagrave Scout Group, who says he has been in scouting as long as Rhys. He said: “My wife ran the Beavers when he arrived 10 years ago on his crutches and I have seen him grow up and face many challenges but they don’t stop him. There have been mishaps when his legs might give way, and he just got up and got on with it.” Gary said Rhys had come to regular camps including their Easter outing to Yorkshire where, as always, he joined in with activities. “If he needs a hand his fellow young leaders will give it, like going up some stairs at Easter. We told him we couldn’t carry him and his wheelchair, so we took the chair and he got himself upstairs. And if he needs a bit of encouragement we will give that too – ‘come on Rhys you can do it, get on with it’ – and he does, encouraging others to do the same.”

That was demonstrated a few weeks ago when the Explorers tried out the climbing wall at Tokko Youth Space in Gordon Street. He got out of his wheelchair, donned the safety harness and using just his arms, climbed to the top.

Leagrave, which meets on Fridays at Southfields Primary School, is a big and thriving scout group with around 90 young people. “We are a very diverse and inclusive group. We say we are never full and we don’t have a waiting list,” said Gary. That means regular newcomers, and some have special needs or other challenges. “It can be daunting for them and Rhys is the kind of young man who goes out of his way to bring them in and integrate them into the rest of the group.” Gary says Rhys has told him he wants to eventually become a Leader.  “That is very possible and feasible and if he continues to display the qualities he has shown so far – definitely. He encourages others, working through his disabilities and inspiring them by showing that he has done it, and so can they.”

Rhys admits climbing the rock wall was hard. “Because of my legs I had to use my upper body and it really hurt. But everyone else was going up and I didn’t see why, just because I am in a wheelchair, I couldn’t?”

Why does he like the scouts? “Because I like learning new things, doing first-aid, going on camp, doing things you might never do and being part of a group – I do everything everyone else does. “For me the best thing is the friendship – scouts are like a second family, always helping each other out. “It is important that I pass on this stuff to the next generation of scouts. Some of them might be nervous and I tell them ‘you shouldn’t be, once you have done something new you will enjoy it and then move on to something else and give that a go’.”

Rhys added: “Next year I am 18 and I could become a leader and help carry out the duties of a leader.” Incredibly Scouting isn’t Rhys’s only big interest – taking up two nights a week and more. On Tuesdays he is performing with the Next Generation Youth Theatre and is studying drama at A-level at Harlington Upper School, with an eye on a career in theatre. He has been appearing in productions at The Hat Factory.

“I love drama, it lets me express myself and if I am feeling down or upset about something drama lifts me. I like the idea of being another person on stage and there is no why a disability should stop having that ambition, just go for it.” He added, “And I don’t get nervous – well perhaps when I see the audience taking their seats.”

YOPEY has been praised by national leaders including former prime ministers and the new Education Secretary for seeking out ‘ordinary’ young people who contribute “something extraordinary to their communities”. Justine Greening MP said: “The awards provide an inspiration for other young people – and for adults – that even in difficult circumstances young people can find ways to help others and change the world around them.”

YOPEY started in Bedfordshire in 2006 and has expanded into many other counties. Its founder, former national newspaper journalist Tony Gearing, said: “There are many young people in Bedfordshire doing wonderful things for others. It’s just that they live in the shadow of a well-publicised anti-social minority. “We need to give young people the respect they deserve and set up the best as positive role models for others to copy rather than focusing on the small number who appear in the press for negative reasons.”

About Rhys, Tony said: “For all his young life Rhys has faced the challenge of spina bifida and for most of that time he has been in the scouts. Each has given something to the other with Rhys inspiring and passing on his knowledge and experience to the next new scouts.” As well as Atlas Converting, which is based in Wolseley Road, Kempston, this year’s Beds YOPEY is sponsored by the county’s fire & rescue service and recruitment company Guidant Group. The YOPEY charity has also received grants from Bedfordshire & Luton Community Foundation, the Gale Family Trust and Wixamtree. The Bedfordshire awards will be presented at St John’s College, Cambridge, this autumn when a joint ceremony with Cambridgeshire young people will be held. But each county will have its own Young People of the Year. And Rhys will be there.

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