Penny says goodbye to the Kidz Board

Outgoing Kidz Board chair Penelope on how Whizz Kidz weaved its way into her life, from her first wheelchair to the Kidz Board and beyond

When she picked her first wheelchair from us at age five, she went for bright orange. A hue that, according to colour theory, represents optimism and youthful energy. It sends out a message of positivity, apparently. So it was the perfect choice for future Kidz Board chair Penelope Harrison. Always bold and brilliant, she tells us how she's grown up with Whizz Kidz over the last 15 years.

At Whizz Kidz, we believe that the right wheelchair can change a young person’s life. But let’s not forget that young wheelchair users change the charity too. Few people have shaped Whizz Kidz as much as Penny. The chair of Kidz Board, the group of campaigning young wheelchair users at the heart of the organisation, is departing to study at the University of Strasbourg for a double maîtrise franco-anglaise. 

Although we know she’ll always stay in touch, it marks the end of an era that goes back some 15 years to when Penny’s mom first picked up a leaflet about Whizz Kidz for her five-year-old daughter. This was the start of her involvement with Whizz Kidz and the beginning of a timeline full of unforgettable moments that take in her first (very orange) wheelchair from us, learning how to use it, developing an early love of fashion that’s seen her go all the way to Vogue, public speaking to 400 people aged eight, more visits to the Houses of Parliament than many politicians manage, and of course, almost like it was destined, in 2019 to the chair of our Kidz Board.

The Whizz Kidz colleague who works closest with Penny is Elle Walmsley, Kidz Board officer. We asked her what working with Penny meant to her.

“It has been a joy to learn and work alongside Penny. She has grown up with Whizz Kidz, from that first orange wheelchair to the professional and enthusiastic young lady of today. I look forward to seeing Penny’s journey develop and wish her every success along the way.”

Are there any moments with Penny that she remembers particularly fondly?

“Our impromptu chats. Penny was very good at sharing regular updates and project ideas with me. Once business had been taken care of, she often finished with an amusing experience or mishap. Our last conversation ended with all roads leading to Beyoncé which still makes me smile when I think about it.”

Whizz Kidz CEO Sarah Pugh has shared many stages with Penny when delivering the charity’s message to politicians, industry leaders, corporations and community groups. She said: “Penny’s energy and passion for her chair of Kidz Board role has been immeasurable. I have learnt so much from Penny about the challenges young wheelchair users face every day, and I am very grateful for her honesty and openness. I have also seen in Penny the power and determination of a new generation to bring about positive societal change which benefits everyone.”

One moment she remembers fondly came in Sarah’s first week as CEO. “Every interaction with Penny has been special, but I remember fondly the call I had with Penny in my first week when I joined Whizz Kidz in May 2021. Her enthusiasm and kindness shone through. It struck me immediately not only how much Penny and the Kidz Board could help me in understanding the issues Whizz Kidz is here to support young wheelchair users with but also how just much fun it was going to be working alongside the Kidz Board!”

It’s time we heard from Penelope herself about how she’s been there for Whizz Kidz for most of her life. We asked her to take us through our shared history and what we’ve done together.

How did you first hear about Whizz Kidz?

It was around 15 or so years ago, in a hospital in Derby. We have a charity called Umbrella, a signposting charity. They had a dedicated room right by the reception. I was always frustrated because all the leaflets were at my Mum's eye level, so that I couldn’t see them. She found a leaflet from Whizz Kidz. Every charity we had turned to previously had certain criteria meaning we would be turned away; I was too young, I hadn't been diagnosed yet, or they had means testing. My family is not rich by any means, but we always sat £20 or £30 above the level for means testing. My mum wrote Whizz Kidz a letter explaining who I was and why I had been denied support previously. She was not expecting to hear back. 

What was your first interaction with the charity? Did you receive equipment from us?

Whizz Kidz did respond, and they offered to get me a wheelchair. I feel guilty saying this because I am only 20, but I feel quite old now. At the time, Whizz Kidz didn't have the logistics or structure they do now. They would tap into the local Wheelchair Services to assess etc., so I went to a place called Bromakin. One thing that really struck me, as a disabled person, is that I was used to being excluded from tables, but the table they used was like the height for a five-year-old. I thought I can reach this in my wheelchair. This is cool! They displayed all the wheelchairs on the wall. The first wheelchair, I was like ''no''. The second one, I thought, ''yes'', it was some sort of Quickie, and I said ''I'm going to have this one''. Next, I was asked to choose a colour. They had a mossy green which reminded me of Ben 10 or the Ninja Turtles, and bright orange. I chose the colour orange. 

I vividly remember the brakes. I didn't have good reach at the time. The model of wheelchair I chose had gaps in the sideguard so that the brakes would go through there. I could just push a knob that was in the sideguard. It was so helpful and also kind of cool, as I hadn't seen that before. It got even better because they pulled me over to a desk with two screens to choose spoke guards. I was really excited. As I was scrolling, though, none of them matched the orange. After 20 mins of scrolling, I saw Diddl Mouse and all the other characters (a German comic strip). They were yellow and white, which matched the orange perfectly. I just thought this is the best day of my life. I was overwhelmed. This was the first thing I was allowed to personalise, do, explore. I still have a life-size Diddl Mouse by my bed! 

I couldn't wait to go to school with this and with Diddl Mouse by my side. When I got home, my brother jumped into my chair before I did. He is an engineer now, and part of that, I am sure, came from learning about my wheelchairs. Whizz Kidz has been really life-changing for me. I got that wheelchair about three days before my 6th birthday, and I got my current wheelchair three days before my 18th birthday. You know, when you are disabled, the only cool place you go to that other young people don't is the hospital. Others are all going to Disneyland, the zoo. I went to Bromakin and thought I am going somewhere no one had been, and it was just really cool.

Did you take part in any of the other services?

Oh, I did everything. I went to wheelchair skills training about three weeks after receiving my chair. We went to a special school for children with disabilities called Ivy House, the hall was rented out. We were an hour early for our appointment, my mum is always early for things, and I practised wheelies in the waiting room, thinking the trainer would be so impressed. When we went in, I was told ''we are not doing wheelies yet, you need to learn how to use the wheelchair properly first''. This was a very different environment for me, where I was treated like a real human being who can make decisions and mistakes. When I started, I tried to push the wheelchair as you would walk, left rim first, right rim, which clearly doesn't work. By the end of the three days, I knew how to do it, pick things up, go through doors. At the time, I remember thinking, ''Why are they teaching me this'' but now, as a 20-year-old, every time I encounter a new door, I still talk myself through the steps. 

After that, I joined in with the Kidz Clubs. That was my first time around other kids in an unprescribed setting. This was the first time I had been around disabled young people, and I am still in touch with the friends I made there. One thing I can really link back to today, a lot of my time was spent at school with a uniform, at the hospital with clothes that are easy to remove, or at events like communions which are more formal. I didn't have much opportunity to join in more relaxed events. Back then, there was no going to the park, going on a nature trail. This was the first opportunity to choose my own outfit for the day. I vividly remember my mum saying you will be the best dressed in the room; you can one day be a stylist, now, to be doing a mentorship with Vogue Business is incredible. The connections back to Whizz Kidz are amazing.

Going back to Ivy House. My mum explored the school while we were there for three days. They had a hydro pool, and we just didn't know that existed. We found out that it could be hired, and I ended up doing all my swimming lessons at Ivy House, all because we went there for Whizz Kidz wheelchair skills training.

What prompted you to get involved in the Kidz Board? 

Whizz Kidz has had a profound impact on my life. Through Whizz Kidz, I have had the opportunity to speak in front of 400 people. As an 8-year-old, I was allowed to write the speech myself, I was told you have two weeks to write this, and I thought ''ok, I can do this''. And I did do it. At the end, a lot of the people were crying. Concerned I had done it badly, but they said we had no idea this is how you live. Not in a pity type of way; they were saying they thought they were up to date on issues but had no idea. 

Whizz Kidz then invited me to the World Innovation Health exhibition in 2012. I remember spending the weekend with the Kidz Board; George was the chair at the time. I was listening to Ruth Owen speak, the CEO, then; I was in the front row thinking, ''Wow, she is the only disabled person speaking on that panel. This is cool. This is what I want to do''. 

The Kidz Board then had an event at the House of Lords, in the same terrace room I spoke in last October (and I was there again last week). Whizz Kidz invited me to speak at this event, and again, I was trusted to write my own speech. 

I also went to a school to speak about Whizz Kidz. The school had raised money for us, they gave me a tour, and they had chickens in the classroom. Somewhere on the database, you will find a photo of me awkwardly holding a chicken, trying to smile. 

I then had a few years where I didn't interact with Whizz Kidz as much as I had school transitions. I was about to get my 4th wheelchair; all my other wheelchairs had been orange, and this one was blue. Whizz Kidz asked me to receive my chair at an event at Jardine Motors, where I could speak about what It means to me. Sam in the Comms Team said ''have you thought about joining Kidz Board?''. When I was 10, the boundary to join Kidz Board was 12. When I was 12, it had recently been raised to 14. At 14, I applied and went to the first Kidz Board weekend about a month after my 15th birthday. 

What has it been like being the chair?

It's been nothing like I imagined, not in a bad way. I became chair in June 2019. I was doing my GCSEs, and the day I left my last exam (physics, it was awful), my mum was waiting outside and took me straight to Kidz Board weekend. Looking back, I have always had an insane work schedule. Whizz Kidz has been ingrained in my life, so it didn't feel like ''work''. Now I am realising I really do sign up for a lot.

My first Kidz Board as chair was in December, just before covid hit. I had so many things I wanted to do, such as working with local communities, public speaking. For very valid reasons, all these things stopped during lockdown. We had to be especially cautious with the demographic we work with, so it didn’t shape up exactly how I dreamed it would, but it taught me how to adapt very, very quickly. Accepting things as they came, such as we have a new online partner, someone needs to write for a magazine, and someone needs to have a Zoom meeting, the morale had to be kept up. Although I had some dreams that didn’t eventuate, I am incredibly grateful that Whizz Kidz and the Kidz Board trusted me to chair throughout this time. Despite being the youngest chair, I was trusted to deal with a magnitude of issues. 

It taught me about genuine engagement, how to text, how to write emails, be able to manage in situations where I wouldn’t always know who I was speaking to and why until very close to the time because of schedules and workloads. 

I feel like I am proud, and I did a pretty decent job with that. Right now, looking back as a 20-year-old, I have been thrown in the deep end and taught how to panic youthfully, shall we say. 

In terms of the group, one thing that made me happiest was when we had our first in-person meeting again in September 2021; even though we had new members, most had only been online. When we went into that room and started doing the work in person, it didn’t feel like we only knew each other via the screen. We knew each other in a deep, respectful way. I want to give credit to the group. It felt like a mini-community, a collective.

What are some of the highlights of your time on Kidz Board? Which projects are you particularly proud of?

Morph was one of my last major projects. This is particularly special because Morph had a hiatus. In the early 80s, I used to hate going to appointments to do with my splits; when they are being fitted, it pinches and can leave you in pain. One of the things to calm me down was watching old Morph tapes on the VHS, the ones that aired in the 70s, kind of silent with just flute music. When I was asked to be involved in the selection panel, I remember thinking isn’t this insane another way that Whizz Kidz weaves its way so perfectly into my life? At that stage, I hadn't announced I would be leaving as chair, but in my mind, I knew it was a significant parting project. 

Last week, I was in London and watched people enjoying Morph. A lady was spending her every lunch break from work searching for each Morph. I saw people taking photos with their kids, interacting. It was so cool to see it in real-time as an invisible bystander, knowing I had been a part of all that. It just made me really happy.

Have you achieved all your goals for yourself while being the Kidz Board chair? 

In a weird way, I probably did more than I had hoped. At the beginning of covid, I was flabbergasted ''how am I supposed to do this, make sure people show up, engage, and do what they need to do?'' Knowing that I have left the board in a really good position, and I have spoken with other board members who have left, and they feel the same. I can be a little soppy. Perhaps that is what we needed in covid, to lead with sympathy, empathy, and genuine bounciness. It served itself well to the time we were in. Being locked inside for so long, I really wanted to get out of the house. Attending Kidz Board weekends was my way of doing that, but now I need to go big or go home. That is why I am doing my degree abroad. My peers encouraged me to do that. Even today, having friends texting me and past Kidz Board members suggesting different fashions I should try or that would suit me. Being around those other Kidz Board members, I knew I could figure it out. I have gone a lot further than I intended.

What are your goals for the future?

I have spent so long with Whizz Kidz now that I know the ins and outs of disability and youth campaigning. I have done various projects and my degree on it. 

Sometimes I have imposter syndrome, anxious what if no one takes me seriously, but the universe has been so kind and is still kind to me. I want to make sure I give that kindness back. If the universe is pushing me toward something, I will grab it. I am happy where I am now, preparing for France. I feel I have the skills to get there, and if I don’t have the skills, I have the skills to learn. 

Whatever I do, it will be because I love it. I want to make a positive change through that love.

Do you plan to still be involved in the charity? And how?

Oh, you can’t get rid of me. If I am not physically there, there will always be a connection. I will always be on the lookout, ready and raring to go to bring ideas back.

We can’t wait to see what Penelope achieves next. If you’re interested in following in her trail and getting involved with Kidz Board, get in touch by emailing us at:

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