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Voices of an angel

02 May 2019

WATCH: How our student Volunteer of the Year created a choir and brought together people with a range of brain injuries, their carers – and a whole community

The University of Manchester has awarded its Student Volunteer of the Year Award to Isla Atay, who directed a Gareth Malone-style choir bringing together young and old members of the community, people with traumatic brain injuries, hearing and visual impairments, behavioural difficulties, autism, Asperger’s and learning difficulties.

Isla (MusB 2020) directed rehearsals at the Leonard Cheshire’s Acquired Brain Injury Service, Oakwood, in Stockport after being recruited by Regional Fundraising Research Coordinator Amy Bradley, a former University of Manchester student who acquired Functional Neurological Disorder in the first year of her Neuroscience PhD.

Most members had never sung before, let alone in a choir, and had widely-ranging needs, but Isla’s quiet, gentle enthusiasm and determination saw them sing in harmony at Arley Hall Chapel as part of Leonard Cheshire’s Christmas Musical Extravaganza.

More importantly, the choir members – who also included staff from Oakwood residential service  and members of other local choirs – loved their time together and became firm friends.

Here you can watch their story:

Amy recalls: “I know what rehabilitation is like – it’s painful, it’s lonely, and you have to keep positive, keep persevering, despite your life having just been dramatically turned upside down.  Music has kept me going through my period of illness and I wanted to to bring people together and help others through difficult times by the creation of a Gareth Malone-style choir. When we first met, Isla’s passion for the project was palpable, and I could see from the first rehearsal that this was, as she put it, “something I’d always wanted to do.” Isla has a true talent for bringing people together, a natural maturity and poise, and I nominated her for the award after being staggered by her dedication, maturity and professionalism.

“Leonard Cheshire’s aim is to help individuals live, learn and work in their local community. Oakwood, our Acquired Brain Injury Service does just that: it provides intensive care and rehabilitative support for people following brain injuries and supports them as they regain functional capacity, re-integrate into the community and re-learn the skills to move back home. 

“The Christmas Choir  did something really special, it ‘brought the outside in’ to the residential service: a reminder that there was possibility, there was life beyond and that there was a reason for the people staying with us to strive with their rehabilitation. All those who wished to join in were very welcome, and those who did not want to enjoyed Christmas music winding along their corridors every week.

“Every week, tears were brought to my eyes when the community members of the choir arrived andimmediately started talking to the Oakwood residents, sharing stories of their weeks and asking how each other were getting on. The choir wasn’t about ‘outside Oakwood’ and ‘inside Oakwood’, people became friends. Isla’s incredible work facilitated this.”

Isla not only prepared the music and directed rehearsals with a significant and sustained commitment of over four hours a week, she also spoke about the project and Leonard Cheshire on local radio, drove the accompanist and a participant with autism to rehearsals, nominated Leonard Cheshire for her Halls of Residence Charity of the Year and has volunteered to lead the organisation and management of Leonard Cheshire’s Harvest Concert on Thursday, 26 September at Arley Hall Chapel.

Such was Isla’s leadership and professionalism, she has been offered a permanant conducting position with The Stockport Male Voice Choir, who also performed at the Christmas Concert and admired her work on the night.

More information

For more information on volunteering opportunities at Leonard Cheshire, visit: