On 28 August 2014 I sponsored a puppy called Angel. Angel is a gorgeous golden retriever. She is yellow, furry and confident. Angel is being trained as a guide dog. I'm sent regular "pupdates" by the Guide Dogs, a charity which does important and massively empowering work. The 28 August is a day I've written about before, in relation to Christianity. This was an important day. I was standing by the monument to the Reformation martyrs near Smithfield Market. I reflected on my faith. I was overcome by a Christian surge, originating from the depths of my soul. This was a turning point for me. Later that day, on the main concourse of Blackfriars Station, I was stopped by a polite individual. They asked if I would like to sponsor a guide dog. There were two to choose from, called Angel and Dasha. I chose Angel. I love that the guide dog is named Angel. I perceive this as a sign from God, denoting that day's significance. I'm always excited when I receive a letter from the Guide Dogs, as it's a pleasure to observe Angel's progression. Angel's growth from a puppy into an adult dog, from inquisitive, gentle and yearning to learn, to mature and ready to help other people, parallels my spiritual development. I am becoming a mature Christian and am commencing 2016 with a greater emphasis on my faith activism. I keep the updates on Angel in my Bible, along with my Palm Sunday cross.
You can imagine my excitement when I was invited to the Guide Dogs Annual Awards in December. They are a charity which is close to my heart. This was bound to be an evening of my favourite things. I found stories of bravery, hope and kindness, alongside glamour, gaiety and, most importantly, LOTS of guide dogs. Upon my arrival I was photographed with some cute canines. Throughout the evening I grabbed many more for cuddles.
I met an incredible lady at my table. Libby Clegg won a silver medal at the London Paralympics in 2012. I was fortunate to talk to her about blindness, what her guide dog means to her and to hear more of her story. Libby became blind at the age of nine. She is empathetic, courageous and intelligent. And transcends any stereotype. Libby has responded to her blindness by incorporating this into her identity. She described numerous ways in which her guide dog Hatti has transformed her life. Previously Libby hated having to explain her blindness, but Hatti means she no longer has to explain herself like this. Libby says Hatti has made her more confident. She socialises more and meets more people. Previously Libby was ashamed of her blindness. Now she is proud. She says she doesn't know if she would be the person she is today without her blindness. I feel the same regarding my HIV. Libby told me a quotation from Hellen Keller, the twentieth-century civil rights activist who was both deaf and blind, which she finds particularly inspiring: "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight without vision." Libby has the strength and ambition to make her dreams a reality, overcoming her blindness. A true role model.
I spoke to Tiri Hughes, the winner of the Young Persons Achievement Award, later in the evening. She is another empowered young woman. Like Libby, Tiri is also beautiful and has achieved a great deal. She wants to study medicine at Oxford. Tiri doesn't let her blindness hold her back. I perceived a young woman who could achieve anything, Oxford and beyond, to help people and transform society. The Guide Dog of the Year award went to Tillie and her owner Nicky Askew. Tillie is Nicky's angel. Tillie saved the family from a house fire, protecting them. Nicky is a ray of hope. I was very touched when she congratulated me for campaigning around HIV. It was an evening where I reflected a lot on identity and was inspired and humbled by the achievements of those around me.
I found my Angel on 28 August 2014. My faith is a constant source of strength, guiding me to greater things. Thanks to the Guide Dogs countless blind people have a loving friend, angels who help to shape their lives.