WHEN you play The National Lottery, you help important projects to thrive.
For Denis Cook, visiting the National Memorial Arboretum for the first time was life-changing.
This charitable institution in Staffordshire opened in 2001 as a national centre of remembrance for those in the British Armed Forces and civilian community who have given their lives while serving their country.
Denis, 75, became an “RAF boy” aged 16, and trained in electronics before joining “the real man’s air force”, where he served for 13 years. It was the dedication of a memorial to the RAF Boy Entrants that first drew him to the Arboretum in 2004. Wowed by the place, when he retired he became one of more than 220 dedicated volunteers here.
“You witness very moving acts of remembrance, be it from old comrades or recently bereaved family members,” says Denis. “As you might imagine, it can be a very emotional place.”
He once helped a man in his nineties, guiding him to the Armed Forces Memorial, where his late son’s name had been carved.
“It was the first time he had seen it,” Denis recalls. “I stepped back to give him some time alone, then took him for a cup of tea. He told me he’d been unsure about coming, but left feeling glad that he had.
“Another elderly gentleman arrived in a wheelchair pushed by his son. He had his beret on, medals in place and a smart knot in his regimental tie. At his old regiment’s tree, he got up and walked proudly to lay a wreath, then saluted. He told me he wanted to pay tribute to his fallen colleagues while he still could.”
Denis now looks back at his first visit to the Arboretum as “a eureka moment”.
“It was a calling, if you like. Whenever I walk through the door, I feel proud.”
When the Arboretum closed last March for three months during lockdown, not only was it a great loss for the visitors who sought solace there, it also created a real financial challenge, as the revenue from visitors suddenly ceased.
But thanks to National Lottery players, help was at hand in the form of a £100,000 emergency grant to keep things ticking over and maintain the memorials and grounds. This represents just part of the £1billion National Lottery players have raised to help people across the UK during these unprecedented times.
It was welcome news for Denis, who sees first hand the very personal significance of the memorials and the comfort they bring.
Covering 150 acres, the beautiful site has 26,000 trees and almost 400 memorials encompassing the armed forces, emergency services, the police, the RNLI and community organisations such as Scouting.
For Denis, the Arboretum is not a place of sadness: “It’s somewhere to commemorate lives lived – friends, comrades and loved ones who will never be forgotten.”
And there is one name on the wall of the Armed Forces Memorial he will never forget.
“When I was 19 and serving in Borneo, a lad my age called Ricky Galbraith brought supplies to our remote radio post every week. Then, just before he was due to go home to his wife and infant daughter, Ricky was killed in a helicopter accident in the jungle. When I pass his name on the wall, I always say hello.”
Fellow volunteer Sue Elliott, 80, has been involved with the Arboretum since it opened. In 1958, aged 17, she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, where she trained as an air mechanic and served overseas. Now she’s the go-to volunteer for visiting Wrens.
“We have a lovely Wrens Garden, which I helped to create,” she says. “When any Wrens visit, the years melt away. It’s as if I’m 22 again – ‘Once a Wren, always a Wren!’”
Sue has seen the Arboretum evolve over the years: “It never stands still; there is always something new. We have a newly renamed path, the Captain Sir Tom Moore Way, that is the distance he walked around his garden each day. Fittingly, it leads to the Burma Star memorial as he proudly wore that medal.
‘It’s such a special place in the lives of so many people’
“You can be left in peace at the Arboretum. I can tell by someone’s body language if they would rather be alone with their thoughts. It is a place of great empathy.
“Volunteering there is a huge part of my life. I am so thankful that it exists and that I’ve been able to play my part. It’s such a special place in the lives of so many people.”
That’s why those initial months of lockdown, when the Arboretum was closed, were hard.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking, especially when people couldn’t visit to commemorate a meaningful date,” says head of visitor experience Mark Ellis.
On a practical level, it was a Herculean effort to reopen last summer with Covid-secure measures in place. Visitors now have to pre-book online, and this means reduced numbers, as well as one-way routes, new signs and enhanced cleaning.
“The National Lottery funding kept us going. Without it, we would have faced even tougher decisions,” Mark admits.
Choosing your weekly numbers, you might not think about where the money goes. But it has a real impact, giving vital support to the Arboretum and other good causes across the UK.
“That money makes a massive difference to us,” says Mark. “So, thank you to the National Lottery players – and good luck!”
To find out how your numbers are making amazing happen, visit national-lottery.co.uk/news.
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