Caroline, a 22-year-old medical student who uses an electric wheelchair, has been a member of Girlguiding since she was seven. She now leads a group of Rainbows (ages five to seven) and Brownies (ages seven to 10).
As a child I was very active. I did a lot of swimming and got a job as a lifeguard, and I studied hard to go to medical school.
When I was 16, I suffered a prolapsed disc in my back. During the routine epidural procedure that followed, I suffered a massive asthma attack and ended up in intensive care.
I recovered fairly well, but before long it became clear that this was not going to be a one-off event. My lungs reacted dramatically to almost anything. I suffered almost daily asthma attacks and had to learn a different way of living.
It meant giving up a lot of the things I enjoyed and I found that difficult.
Girlguiding made me feel valued
Being part of Girlguiding really helped. It was a constant. It was a link to the old Caroline and an opportunity to show myself that I could still do things.
My illness put so much stress on my family that I constantly felt I was a burden. In guiding my contribution, however big or small, was valued. That gave me the confidence to try and accept my situation and make the best of what I had.
When I started university in 2010 my asthma had stabilised, but new problems began to appear. The steroids I was taking to keep the attacks at bay were having side effects all over my body, from weight gain and bruising easily to steroid-induced myopathy (muscle weakness).
Over time my muscles became weaker and wasted away, until during one hospital stay I got out of bed to pick something up and realised that I could not stand up. My legs were not strong enough.
This was terrifying. Initially, I thought I could not cope. I could not imagine my life like this – struggling to walk any distance, finding stairs like climbing a mountain.
The only reason I didn’t give up was that the day after I was discharged from hospital, I was due to take 36 Brownies to a theme park.
I was incredibly nervous about being pushed in a manual wheelchair and had no idea how the girls would react. As they were arriving, one of the youngest girls came up to me and said: “I know I’m not supposed to say this but I like you being in a wheelchair”.
I asked her why. “Because now it doesn’t hurt my neck when I’m talking to you!” was the answer.
That was a turning point in my mind. In so many areas of my life, people were saying “No” to me. In guiding the answer was “Yes”. It gave me a safe environment to test out my new limits.
I had support, but I wasn’t smothered. I was allowed to make my own mistakes, but I knew that there would be someone there to help me work out what to do differently next time.
Since then the opportunities have kept coming, and being disabled has never been an issue.
Last year, I took my Brownies away on holiday, using my electric wheelchair. I also attended the World Scout Moot in Canada where I tried white water rafting, sat on a glacier and was carried through a cave to see a waterfall.
Guiding has got me through when my disability seemed like an insurmountable challenge and I’ve made friendships and memories that will last forever.