Tragedy spurred Charlie on to help others

Charlie Nelson
Charlie Nelson

A Luton teenager who got on his bike to raise thousands of pounds in memory of his younger brother who died from a brain tumour is now planning a career in medicine, perhaps to help find a cure for the illness and ease the pain of sufferers and their families.

Charlie Nelson, aged 15, of Sundon Park is in a competition that hails the ‘giving to others’ of Bedfordshire’s younger generation.

In 2012 his young brother Reece died from an aggressive Medulloblastoma just before his ninth birthday, devastating Charlie and parents Steve and Debs.

The family has since raised significant sums for The Brain Cancer Charity through their Reecie Nelson Superstars Fund, including Charlie completing a 300-mile sponsored cycle ride battling the rain, sleet and snow of Storm Katie.

Now he has been nominated for the Atlas Converting Young People of the Year awards or ‘YOPEYs’ – Oscars for young people who ‘give to others’.

The annual contest has over £1000 to be won by Bedfordshire young people who ‘give to others’. 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.

Charlie was nominated by Philip Payne, Community Development Manager at Lealands High School in the town, who mentored the teenager following Reece’s death.

Philip also accompanied Charlie on every mile of the cycle epic over the Easter holiday last year – and which was almost thwarted by Storm Katie!

He said: “Charlie is an absolute credit to his family, and we at Lealands are also very proud of him acting with great maturity throughout what has been an incredibly difficult time for him and his parents.

“During his mammoth bike ride he dealt with daily radio and television interviews and handled everything that was thrown at him like a pro. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Charlie and felt privileged to be welcomed in to what is a very close-knit family and circle of great friends.”

Philip added: “Charlie continues to inspire me and I consider myself lucky to have been able to work with him during his time at Lealands, whatever his future has in store I am sure it will be a fantastic success.”

In 2011 Reece, 18 months younger than Charlie, became ill and a scan at Addenbrooke’s Hospital revealed a brain tumour. An operation removed it but three weeks later it had returned and urgent and powerful chemotherapy followed.

“It was awful,” said mum Debs Nelson. “Charlie was there all the time holding Reece’s hand, or a bowl for him.”

“Our lives were turned upside down with Steve and me at hospital during the week and Charlie staying with his grandparents and coming up at weekends. In January 2012 we were told the chemo had got rid of the cancer but there was still five weeks of radio therapy twice a day. He was still clear in April, then it came back in such an aggressive form there was nothing they could do and Reece died in September just before his ninth birthday – he had seen his eighth in hospital,” she said.

“We went through it all together but Charlie really had the rug pulled from under him losing his best friend, but he still got stuck in at school,” said Debs.

That Christmas Charlie collected selection boxes, sweets and biscuits for children spending the holiday in Addenbrooke’s and the following Easter he bought chocolate eggs for them out of his pocket money.

The family had already discussed how they could raise money for charity choosing The Brain Tumour Charity and setting up the Reecie Nelson Superstars Fund directed at paediatric research and rehab for children recovering from surgery, chemo and radio therapy.

At school Charlie suggested to Phil they organise a 26-mile walk with his year 7 football team and they did it in two days with overnight camping in between during a heatwave. With a stall at the school fete they raised £2,000.

Then Charlie organised a toy appeal for Addenbrooke’s and despite being, according to his mum, a shy boy, recruited more support by taking an assembly at Redborne Upper School in Ampthill. In 2016 Charlie staged a 300-mile cycle around Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, beginning and ending at Addenbrooke’s.

Phil agreed to ride with Charlie while his mum and dad took it in turns to ride or follow in the support vehicles with a Vivaro van supplied by GMM Luton.

They hadn’t banked on Storm Katie hitting the UK over the Easter holiday and despite the appalling weather and a wonky sat nav sending them across ploughed fields they arrived back at Addenbrooke’s in front of supporters and television cameras having raised £13,000.

Charlie says his late brother had been on his mind during the worst moments of the ride. “He was spurring me on and I wanted to make him proud, raise money and help stop what had caused him to pass away”.

In total to date the family have raised more than £50,000 from the cycle ride and other events with more planned. This year though Charlie is focused on his GCSEs, not least because he is aiming for a career in medicine.

“I have always got on with science and maths but didn’t know what I wanted to do. After Reece passed away and seeing how hard the doctors and nurses tried to help him, even though it didn’t work out in the end, I have decided to go into the medical field. I want to help people like our family in any way I can.

“The fundraising is very important to support investigating cancer and it has helped us as a family cope with Reece passing away, given us something to concentrate on and make him a part of it.”

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 Charlie, Tony said: “To lose a much-loved younger brother to cancer would be a huge blow to anyone but it has inspired Charlie, and his family and friends, to remember Reece in an incredibly positive way, raising valuable funds to help research into brain tumours.

“Now Charlie is directing his energy towards a potential medical career that could help many others in the future”

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 winners.

> Do you know somebody who deserves the title Young Person of the Year? To nominate logon to yopey.org or write, enclosing a stamped-addressed-envelope, to YOPEY, Woodfarm Cottage, Bury Road, Stradishall, Newmarket CB8 8YN for a paper entry form. Entries close on July 31st.

YOPEY is open to young people aged from 10 to 25, who should live, work or study in Bedfordshire. But they do not have to meet all three conditions. They could go to school, college or university in Beds but live elsewhere and vice versa.

Typical entries include fundraisers, young carers, club leaders, volunteers on projects at home or abroad and young leaders who pass on academic or sporting skills. YOPEY is always revealing new positive role models and the qualification for entry is easy – simply, the young person has to ‘give to others’.

Schools, youth organisations, churches and charities across Beds are being urged to nominate their young people. If their nominee wins, they can share the prize money. Family and friends can also nominate but they cannot win prize money. Young people can even nominate themselves.