Posted on Thursday 15 December 2022

in News

Belfast Social Worker receives MBE for services to young people with cancer

A Young Lives vs Cancer Social Work Manager from Northern Ireland has received an MBE at Windsor Castle from King Charles for his services to teenagers and young adults with cancer in Northern Ireland.

Simon Darby, 36, from North Belfast, has been recognised for his vital work supporting families living with cancer. Simon has been working for Young Lives vs Cancer, the UK’s leading charity for children and young people with cancer, since 2011.

Simon said: “For me, the honour is reflected back to those young people and parents who have allowed me the privilege to be part of their cancer experience over the last 10 years.

“I wouldn’t be receiving this honour for my contribution to cancer services for young people in Northern Ireland had those families not said ‘yes’ to my support. I am part of a wider team within the hospitals and charity and very much am daily empowered by my nursing, medical and social care colleagues as we work together to deliver our service, so this honour is owed to them also.”

Simon, one of five boys growing up in Belfast, and civilly partnered to Gerard McGarry, said he knew early on he wanted to work with young adults and have a career in social work. His own experience of finding a lump in his testicle aged 19, during his university degree, has also helped him to empathise with young people facing cancer.

“Both my parents had been community workers when I was growing up and I could see the difference they had on our local community and this really shaped my decision to choose a career in social work. I wasn’t the smartest cookie at school and unfortunately just missed out on getting all the A Level grades to get into the social work degree. I did an A Level in Psychology and had an amazing teacher, so decided to do a psychology degree for three years at Ulster University.

“During my Psychology degree at the age of 19, I found a lump on my right testicle. Being away from home and also being a man, I stupidly ignored it but in hindsight can see how much this affected my mental and physical health. I eventually went to my University GP who used the word ‘cancer’ quite casually, but for me I went into panic mode. For the last 10 years I have had regular check-ups and ultrasounds.

“Although I had gone through all of that, it wasn’t a motivating factor to seek out a job supporting children and young people with cancer and their families. After a few years working I went back and did my social work degree at Queens University Belfast. It wasn’t until I seen the Young Person’s Social Worker post advertised with Young Lives vs Cancer and could see as a charity how much they had included young people in the charity that I felt it would be a good fit.”

Simon went on to further achieve a Masters in Social Work Research and continues to do more post qualifying training in specialist topics.

“The great thing about social work as a career is that you have to continue your professional development. You never stop learning and developing as a social worker, particularly in cancer services, because we need to move along with the advancements and changes in cancer treatments, the NHS as well as things like COVID-19, Brexit and much, much more.”

Amongst Simon’s many achievements is his setting up of MOVE Forward, a CrossFit based rehabilitation programme.

Simon said: “Five years ago I went back to University to complete a masters at Ulster University, focusing on exercise and young adults with cancer. I then started MOVE Forward, which has seen more than 100 young people improve their fitness, quality of life and fatigue over the last four years.

“The best part of this is seeing the young adults who have come through the programme thriving in their lives and becoming the coaches to deliver the programme.”

One young person who has benefitted from Simon’s dedication and commitment as a Social Worker is Mark Adams.

Simon supported Mark when he was diagnosed with cancer aged 24 and helped him with the impact it had on his mental health: “I reached out to Simon and I don’t say this lightly – he genuinely saved my life. He was the first person I opened up to and he got me the help I needed – like seeing a psychologist. I have the upmost respect for Simon, there’s nothing I could ever do to ever say thank you enough to him or repay him for what he has done for me. The work he does is invaluable. I’m only one story, and there are hundreds more.”

Simon’s colleague and friend Laura Rohdich, a Social Care Practitioner at Young Lives vs Cancer, said: “It’s not enough to say Simon is good at everything he does – because it doesn’t show the effort he puts into everything he does. Simon approaches each task in his professional life with 110 per cent creativity, passion, and effort.

“He repeatedly goes above and beyond and as a team we’re so lucky to have him driving forward improvements for teenagers and young adults with cancer in Northern Ireland. I have honestly never met anyone more deserving of this recognition and can’t underestimate what a privilege it is to work with him.”

When asked what inspired him and his work, Simon said: “I am privileged in my job to have been inspired by so many young people and parents I have supported. The inspiration comes by seeing the choices they make along a pathway in life where they have limited choices, powerful decisions to make and must impart trust onto others.

“It’s both the choice and outcome that inspires me as I get to see them thrive, take back control, or sometimes just do something for themselves for once.

“Having my husband and family with me to receive my MBE was extremely special, I’m very thankful they could be part of this memorable experience. It was such a surreal experience, one I will not forget.”

Rachel Kirby-Rider, CEO at Young Lives vs Cancer, said: “Simon is always striving to do everything he can to support young people from the moment they are diagnosed with cancer. Our social workers are at the heart of the vital support we give and we are so grateful for Simon’s commitment and passion at the charity.

“He is a huge asset to Young Lives vs Cancer and inspires us all. An MBE is an incredible honour and one that is so well deserved by Simon. Our many congratulations to Simon and his family.”

For more information, interview or photographs, please contact Alison Millar at Young Lives vs Cancer – or 07775 723 755

Find out more about Young Lives vs Cancer social workers

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