Prince William, the Beckhams and Buckingham Palace - Donna Finch MBE
Having worked for Essex County Fire and Rescue Service for 13 years, Donna Finch is well known for her work with young people and vulnerable adults. In that time, she’s helped more than 5,000 students, long-term unemployed people and juvenile offenders to better themselves – and in doing so she’s become nationally known for her work.
And although her role as Community Development and Safeguarding Manager may not be the most visible area of our Service, she maintains the importance of what her and her team do.
“I think we really do make a difference to vulnerable people in the community. There will be days where you don’t realise the impact that the courses we write and deliver are making and then someone in your team will tell you something and it just really hits home.
“It could be someone that has been a victim of a really horrific crime whose confidence is at an all-time low for example, but has come on one of our courses and is now working as an advocate for other women and vulnerable people. There’s so many different stories and I’m so lucky to be able to share them.”
One of Donna’s proudest successes has been the Service’s award-winning partnership with charity Down Syndrome Extra 21, which has inspired similar programmes as far afield as America and Australia.
“I remember one student in particular who was on the Down’s syndrome course, and he loved it so much that he was actually offered a job as a Premises Inspector at the home he was living in. He gets a small payment each day for doing small jobs like keeping the signs clean and testing the smoke alarms and escape routes – and he’s still doing it five years on.”
Donna has always believed that the close-knit group she leads – the Community Development and Safeguarding team – are the reason behind our Service’s success on those fronts rather than any of her individual work, but when a letter from Buckingham Palace dropped onto her doormat last November, she was in for a moment of unforgettable recognition.
“I phoned Adam (Eckley, A/CFO) and told him that there had been some sort of error. I couldn’t believe it. He assured me there hadn’t, but I just needed to be sure – so I actually phoned the Home Office.”
Over the previous 18 months, unbeknownst to Donna, a rigorous process had been underway in which colleagues from across the partner organisations she had worked with testified that she was deserving of the most incredible honour – an MBE.
She took the first opportunity to gather her team and share the news, and she was overwhelmed by their response.
“I wasn’t allowed to release the news until 10.30pm on 30th December, so I invited all the team to my house – who just thought we were having a New Year’s Eve drink together. When I was able to tell them, there was a big party. It was important to me that they heard first.
“They all instantly made the decision that they wanted to be in London on the day, so they all took a day’s leave. While I was in the Palace, they were in the local, the Buckingham Arms.”
But before joining her colleagues for a drink or two last month, Donna would be in for an unforgettable experience – starting from the moment she arrived at the Royal residence.
“When I got there, there was this stunning staircase, where guests go left and recipients go right. As I walked in, there was a couple in front of me saying goodbye to each other as they were going opposite ways. She stopped as I got to the stairs – and said ‘Hello, I’m Victoria’ – it was Victoria Beckham.
“She asked whether I knew anyone there. I said no and she said ‘neither do I, let’s hang together.’”
For the next 45 minutes while the ladies both awaited their big moment, they chatted away – keeping each other calm and enjoying their surreal experience together.
That was until the Lord Chamberlain – the senior officer of the Royal Household – briefed the two ladies on how precisely they should approach, curtsey to and then walk away from who they would be honoured by, something that would play on Donna’s mind for the remainder of her stay at the Palace.
And then after a seemingly never-ending journey across the building, it was time to meet a member from another of the world’s most famous families – His Royal Highness Prince William.
“As I walked into the room after being called, I couldn’t believe the size of it. The orchestra was playing in the gallery and there were hundreds of people in there.
“They read out my name and what I’ve been honoured with (Services to Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults in the Community). I got my curtsey on point and Prince William was absolutely amazing – I was surprised by how much he knew. He said he really wanted to speak to me about what I do for his Grandfather’s charity – the Duke of Edinburgh Award. I told him about how it started off in Essex locally, but how we’ve managed to make it national and it’s now being rolled out across the Fire Cadet units.”
But there was one final challenge in store…
“He said to me: ‘So what’s next?’ All I could say was what the Lord Chamberlain had told me – I’ve got to take three steps backwards, curtsey again and not turn my back on you.”
Prince William smiled back at me: “Wow, now that’s a good place to start”.