“I think back on how I felt six or seven years ago and so much has changed,” Mark Belton said.
Mark first noticed that his sight was getting worse in his teens. His mum, nan and sister all had an inherited eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
“By the age of 18 or 19 I knew I had it too.
“My eyesight was deteriorating,” Mark said.
“It was a real blow, it was half expected but it sort of knocks you back. I had just got my new job then as an upholsterer.”
Although his vision continued to get worse, his employer installed extra lighting at his work station and supported him in other ways.
But then when he was around 35, Mark’s relationship broke down and he got divorced.
“I think the stress of that, and the depression I fell into, had an effect on the disease and it got worse very quickly.
“My eyesight became so bad I had to come off doing upholstery and they put me on packing.”
The government made up the difference in his wages for a while, but eventually Mark was made redundant.
“Suddenly I was stuck at home”, he said.
“That’s when I became lonely and isolated. What can you do? I can’t really do a lot.
“In the meantime I had met Jane, who is very good to me but she’s completely blind so life together isn’t easy. Even the simplest shopping trip can be a challenge.”
Mark fell into depression for around two months.
Wrong number, new direction
“One day, I don’t know what happened but I started to come out from under my cloud.”
Mark started swimming and going to the gym, and also got counselling through his doctor.
“It was a slow process, but that’s when I started getting better,” he said.
“One day I phoned for a job and misdialled the number and it ended up being the British Red Cross. I don’t know how it happened.
“They didn’t have any jobs but suggested I might like to volunteer, and put me in touch with the Red Cross near me in Warmley, Bristol.
Mark had thought that the Red Cross helped only in international emergencies. But when he got to the Warmley office he found out about the many volunteering opportunities in the UK.
“I was trained up to teach first aid in schools with Kath Clements in the education team,” Mark said.
“I was shy and quiet at first. But after the first year of working with Kath and the children she gave me an award for how much I’d changed in one year – in terms of getting up and talking to groups of people.
“That was six or seven years ago. I wouldn’t have done that before.”
“You don’t feel excluded or different”
After that, Mark started volunteering with the Red Cross hand, arm and shoulder massage team.
He then joined the Red Cross volunteer council and helped train event first aid volunteers by making up injuries for them to practise on.
“When I was at work I was bullied because I was getting special treatment,” Mark said.
“People don’t gang up on you here. You don’t feel excluded and different.
“When I was at home I felt useless. I felt there was no use for me in the world any more – nothing I could do.”
Now everything has changed.
“The Red Cross brought me out of that shell,” Mark said.
“I can teach groups of people first aid, go to memory cafes to give massages to people with dementia.
“In hospital wards I can give massages to people living with cancer, and their carers and families.
“They’re going through a crisis and for them to have a massage helps a bit. I love it.”
Loneliness can hit at any time of life
“What happened to me could happen to anybody,” Mark said.
“It’s not necessarily people who are older. I was only 35. Loneliness and isolation can happen at lots of different times in your life.
“Life’s still difficult sometimes. But I couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve got plenty of energy and ambitions. I’ve met so many people.
“I love the social contact, getting out of the house and connecting with people.”