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Giving Dorset — ‘To climb as high as they can dream’

Out of tragedy grew the work of the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation, as John Newth explains

John Thornton at Basra Palace in Iraq

Too many families have suffered the tragedy of losing a son or a husband in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those who have not experienced that pain are in no position to judge what is the right or wrong way to handle it. In any case, there is no ‘right’ reaction: each family must find its own path through its grief, and one Ferndown family has created something remarkably positive from their loss.

John Thornton was the youngest of three boys, who from an early age set his heart on becoming an officer in the Royal Marines. Educated at Ferndown Upper School, where he played a leading part in many extra-curricular activities, he also joined the Ferndown squadron of the Air Cadets. As well as achieving Gold in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, he took a parachute course and rose to the rank of Cadet Warrant Officer.

He was selected for the Air Cadet Junior Leaders Course: once a year, the thirty or forty outstanding cadets nationwide are chosen to go on a series of ten training weekends to learn leadership. John graduated as top student on his course, the reward for which was a flight with the Red Arrows. John would go back as an instructor on the Junior Leaders Course when he was on leave.

He achieved his ambition when he joined the Royal Marines in 2004. His first deployment was to Iraq, and in September 2007 he went with 40 Commando to Afghanistan. On 30 March 2008, shortly before the end of their tour of duty, Lieutenant John Thornton and his driver, Marine Dave Marsh, were killed by a roadside bomb.

John had told his parents that in the event of his death, he would like the money from his life insurance to be divided between the three organisations that had educated and shaped him to the man he had become: Ferndown Upper School, the Dorset & Wilts Wing of the Air Cadets, and the Air Cadet Junior Leaders Course. His parents, Peter and Linda, thought no further than a one-off presentation to each of the three, but a suggestion made very soon after their son’s funeral, that they should use the money as the basis for an ongoing charity, caught their imagination. So was born the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation, the first trustees’ meeting being held in June 2008.

The Foundation’s aims are simple: to help young members of the three beneficiary organisations, ‘so as to develop their capabilities that they may grow to full maturity as individuals and members of society’. Its values are also clearly spelled out: courage, determination, unselfishness, and cheerfulness in adversity. Young people who show these qualities can be helped by the Foundation’s money ‘to climb as high as they can dream’.

Linda and Peter Thornton in miserable conditions, but happy to have achieved their aim to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They raised £4000 for the Foundation.

The charity was officially launched at the Bournemouth Air Show in August 2008, thanks to the good offices of De Havilland Aviation, and at once attracted attention. Lesley Dedman, Mayor of Ferndown in 2008/9, made it one of her nominated charities, Sainsburys in Ferndown adopted it as their charity for 2009/10, and private donations have now been joined by revenue from sponsored events.

Peter and Linda Thornton made their own contribution to fund-raising when they walked up Kilimanjaro earlier this year. They were originally doing it just to follow in the footsteps of John, who had climbed the 19,000-foot peak aged 17, but people proved keen to sponsor their efforts and they raised £4000: reward for spending almost a week on the mountain, struggling with the effects of the altitude.

The biggest fund-raising event organised by the Foundation was when they marked their first birthday by hosting a day at the 2009 Bournemouth Air Festival. Although the 132 tickets sold at £75 each only covered the costs of the day, money was raised though a raffle and silent auction, youngsters helped by the Foundation gave presentations, and both the Red Arrows and the RAF Falcons parachute display team visited to show their support.

The Foundation is a family affair. Although there are half a dozen other trustees with special skills and experience to contribute, Peter and Linda, sons Graham and Ian and daughters-in-law Lisa and Vicky are all trustees. It is a useful coincidence that Vicky is a chartered accountant and Lisa is a teacher and careers advisor! Falklands hero Simon Weston is the charity’s Patron.

Applicants for grants have to go through the beneficiary organisation of which they are a member. In 2009, the Foundation made grants totalling £9000 and hopes to hand out three times that much in 2010. The major award through Ferndown Upper School went to Adam Clark, who travelled to India to help build a library for an orphanage, but contributions were also made to the cost of a pupil’s double bass lesson and of a laptop for a student with dyspraxia. Matthew Drew of the Ferndown squadron of the Air Cadets received a grant towards the cost of flying lessons, and another cadet in the squadron was given help with private literacy support to further his ambition of becoming a pilot in the RAF. Three Junior Leaders were subsidised on a trip to Tanzania, where they taught in a primary school, lived in a Masai village and climbed Mount Meru. One of them called it ‘a life-changing experience’: the Foundation had helped him and his colleagues on their way to climb as high as they could dream.

Parents of young soldiers killed in action can understandably become obsessive, for example by keeping their bedroom unchanged as a shrine to their memory. ‘It would be easy to do that,’ says Peter Thornton, but he and Linda have instead channelled that love and energy into the Foundation. They both work full-time and have other interests, so their lives have not become unhealthily skewed, but they are the first to say that the Foundation has also helped them. ‘There’s always something to give you a lift,’ says Linda. ‘We were very low when we came back from Kilimanjaro, but waiting for us was the letter telling us that we were Sainsburys charity of the year.’ There is comfort, too, in keeping John’s memory alive by helping others to achieve and enjoy the things he did. Linda says with moving humility: ‘As a parent, you always want to do things for your children. Although John is no longer here, we are doing this for him. How lucky we are to have that chance.’

Adam Clark of Ferndown Upper School presents a laptop, paid for by the Foundation, to the library he helped build for an orphanage in India

Postal address: The John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation, PO Box 7124, Ferndown, Dorset BH22 2BD
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