A disabled army veteran was in Shetland yesterday as part of an extraordinary mission – to walk 2,012 miles around the UK and raise £15 million for his charity.
But Phil Packer was not asking for money in the isles – instead he met groups of young people to show them that, in the in the words of the motto of his charity, the British Inspiration Trust, “everything is possible”.
Phil, 41, was injured while serving in Iraq. He suffered severe spinal cord injuries and was told it was highly unlikely he would ever walk again. That was in 2008, but four years later he is around halfway through the latest of his challenges in his journey round the country, which he started in January and includes spending August walking in every county in Scotland.
His eventual aim is to build the British Inspiration Trust (BRIT) Centre of Inspiration for young people who are suffering psychological and post-traumatic problems or facing other types of adversity.
For Phil walking is a constant painful effort – he has a “cage” round his spine and walks with a stick.
Yesterday he walked four miles round the Clickimin running track, equivalent to half a marathon for anyone without his injuries.
He was accompanied on the track by members of the Lerwick Junior Jarl’s Squad, who gave him a guard of honour and presented him with a plaque, the Lerwick Sea Scouts, the Hjaltland Explorers unit, the Northern Focus Parkour group, two P7 classes from Bell’s Brae Primary School and some sixth year pupils from the Anderson High School.
Lord Lieutenant Bobby Hunter, Shetland’s MSYP representatives Emily Shaw and Nicole Mouat and Shetland youth ambassadors Sam Maver and Lauren Odie were also there.
Phil was very moved to see the turnout, especially of young people. “That’s why I’m travelling”, he said. And he was amazed by the reception from the guizers. “Is this for me?” he asked. “I’ve never seen a sight like this.”
Later in the day he talked to Shetland College students and presented certificates at their graduation ceremony at Lerwick Town Hall, before travelling to Orkney to walk another four miles. His whole 2,012 mile walk will equate to 310 marathons in 330 days.
The purpose of Phil’s visit is to provide inspiration to young people and he aims is to meet as many as possible on his travels through Britain and Northern Ireland. His centre, when it is eventually built, will cater for 16 to 25-year-olds going through difficult times by having input from inspirational people – he mentioned that three under-25s in the UK commit suicide every day.
At the Clickimin track Phil spoke about his life – how he had left school at 16 with few qualifications, spent some time “in the wilderness” and walked into an army recruiting office at the age of 20. Seventeen years later he was a major in the Royal Military Police but retired after his injury, sustained on operational duty.
He said: “I was paralysed from the waist down and feeling very scared. Going from six foot three inches to being in a wheelchair is a very scary thing.”
And he said of being in a wheelchair: “You need to look at who the person is. I wanted to prove I had something to offer.”
Battling back from his injuries and to regain self-worth and stave off depression, he embarked on physical challenges. In 2009, with another man, he rowed the English Channel and the same year walked the London Marathon, completing it in 14 days. The following year he somehow finished it in 26 hours, accompanied on the 26 miles by young people from the 26 charities.
Around this time he was also honoured with the MBE and the Pride of Britain Fund-raiser of the Year award. He became an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust and NSPCC but he said: “I’d got to do more.”
He has devoted his “new life” post injury to the hugely ambitious vision of his BRIT rehabilitation residential centre, which will be built in West Sussex, to reshape the life of young people with mental or physical problems, wounded service personnel or young carers.
He wondered how he was going to raise £15 million? He had to form a charity but takes no wage, relying purely on donations.
Then, in a determined fashion, he asked big businesses, including British Airways, Virgin and others to come together in 2012 to pledge either £10,000 or £5,000 towards the centre. Ten thousand pounds might sound like a large amount, he told the gathering at Clickimin, “but it’s not to BT.”
He will finish his walk before Christmas at London’s Canary Wharf where he said “there are a lot of people with a lot of money”.
Phil’s work will also see charities work together – young people will be able to be referred to the BRIT centre from other charitable organisations.
Last year he partnered with over 50 charities and each of their chief executives agreed to be a BRIT adviser, and in addition more than 50 high-profile inspirational figures have offered their support. This will involve people such as Jamie Oliver, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Sir Richard Branson and Gordon Ramsay each giving 24 hours of their time to be BRIT mentors.
Phil’s example will inspire students at Shetland College, according to principal David Gray.
Professor Gray said: “Part of education is to get people to think beyond the boundaries. I hope [his story] will get students to aim high.”