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‘We raised £2,000 for charity on a Zoom call’

With event plans cancelled as a result of COVID-19, Queen’s Medicine student Paoirse Toner, President of SWOT (Students Working Overseas Trust), has been busy fundraising on Zoom for the Belfast Hospice.

As the UK headed into lockdown, Paoirse Toner, President of SWOT (Students Working Overseas Trust) faced a dilemma about what to do with the carefully curated giftbags he’d assembled for the society’s annual charity fashion show. Due to be held in the Whitla Hall on 16th March, the annual event was expected to raise £35,000-£40,000 for lifesaving medication and resources in some of the poorest areas of the world. Despite having to cancel the event as a result of COVID-19, Paoirse saw an opportunity to give back.

“We had been planning and rehearsing for the show for almost six months.  We had a lot of supplies organised for our Fashion Show goodie bags. Some of the stock would have expired by any potential rescheduled date so we decided to donate it to hospital wards in different hospitals across the province and also to some foodbanks. It’s a small way to thank those working on the front lines and to let them know we’re thinking of them.”

Recipients of popcorn from SWOT

Fundraising on Zoom

Despite lockdown, Paoirse was determined to continue his fundraising efforts. While his usual semester calendar would be packed with back-to-back fundraisers, he was quick to adapt.

“Our fundraising greatly varies from Toga Parties, Bake Sales and Carol Singing to Medics Match Day and Blood Pressure Clinics. Since COVID-19, we’ve had to cancel all our planned events. The team and I have, however, continued to fundraise and promote the work that SWOT does where possible.

“SWOT Got Talent was an event that featured 10 acts comprising of students and staff of the Medical School. We had dancers, singers, musicians, artists, a magician and a few members of staff even formed a boyband. The event took place on Zoom over the course of two and a half hours. It was free to view but donations were encouraged.”

SWOT got talent banner

“We had initially expected no more than 100 viewers, but we had to increase the capacity of the Zoom meeting as we reached over 100 in the first 10 minutes. At its peak the show had over 200 people watching at one time. The audience consisted of students from all 5-year groups of Medicine and many members of staff from the Medical school. There were viewers from all over the UK and Ireland, Africa and even Australia. It was amazing to see the response.

Our target amount was £250 and we managed to raise £2,170 in a matter of two hours. We were completely astounded by the response from everyone. We received many messages from students and members of staff to say that they thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I believe the sense of community that we were all able to create was very much needed during isolation. The money is to be split between our charity SWOT, and Belfast Hospice to support their fight against COVID-19.”

Medical volunteering

The event was power for the course for Paoirse, who has been an active volunteer since he first began studying Medicine at Queen’s. University life offers so many opportunities for volunteering. I’ve always tried to be a part of some of my course specific societies. Through the medical school societies, I’ve been able to help out with Blood Pressure clinics, educational workshops, signing members of the public up to the bone marrow register and also raise funds for hospitals in developing countries,” says Paoirse. Adding, 

“Volunteering with different clubs and societies is a great way to get to know new people, to raise money for a good cause and to do something different from what you normally would.”

Adapting to help those in need

 The pandemic may have put Paoirse’s normal fundraising plans on hold, but he is proud of his team and fellow Medical students.  "SWOT as a charity works very much on a global scale. At the minute however we have had to downscale and focus more locally. While many of our committee and members are working as either Health Care Assistants or Medical Student Technicians, SWOT has a limited amount of what we can do to tackle COVID directly. What we can do is support those who are on the frontlines of the NHS. Our predecessors have recently graduated Final Year in Medicine and have taken up roles as interim FY1s months ahead of schedule. We hope they know how immensely proud of them we are.

“Due to travel restrictions, the money raised this year will be carried over to next. In a year’s time, when our students will hopefully be able to go on their electives again, we will be able to use the funds raised to help support healthcare systems in the poorest parts of the world. This money largely goes on essential equipment and supplies to stop the spread of infections.”

SWOT banner

Lessons learned

Reflecting on the personal and professional lessons he has learned, Paoirse says:

“Professionally, I have learned that there are always ways to overcome obstacles to achieve your goals. We have experienced setbacks this year and our plan for fundraising had to be completely revised due to the current climate. I’ve learned how supportive the Medical School and community can be.

“Personally, I have learned that there is so much to be taken from volunteering. Volunteering opportunities can often be seen as CV boosters only. The SWOT team this year have put so much into their work and it’s been amazing to see their passion, hard work and dedication. I have felt very proud to have worked with this team.”

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