As charity volunteer Keith Ainsworth finally packs away his collecting tins, MICHELLE BLADE finds out about his 35 years spent raising £450,000 for a cause close to his heart
A charity volunteer well known in the area as ‘Sooty Man’ has raised just short of £450,000 for the Royal National Institute for Blind People.
Keith Ainsworth, 74, of Morecambe, is now retiring from charity work along with his wife Carol but is keen for someone to take over the reins and carry on raising money for the RNIB.
Keith Ainsworth said: “Years ago I had a heart attack and was 19 stone. I got down to 10 and a half stone in 12 months.
“I couldn’t work so I rang different charities up to find out their costs, I didn’t want to work for a charity that took 50% of the money themselves.
“That was 35 years ago. There was no-one in this area volunteering for the RNIB.
“I’ve built it up over the years, it now covers as well as Morecambe and Lancaster, Arnside, Bentham, Cockerham, Barrow and more.
“The first thing when I started volunteering was getting the Sooty boxes (collection boxes in the shape of the popular puppet Sooty). I got between 500 and 1000 boxes and put them in shops, pubs, fish and chip shops, doctors surgeries and more.
“The RNIB were friendly with Sooty creator Harry Corbett and that’s how the Sooty boxes came about.
“I was called ‘Sooty man’ because I collected the Sooty boxes.
“People would dress Sooty up for Christmas. In one place one of Sooty’s eyes popped out but they didn’t want to change him for a new one.
“Morecambe Bay GPs’ surgeries have been brilliant, they have money spinners (a plastic box with a dome that money is put in and spins around) in Heysham, West End, Queen Victoria Centre, and Westgate and over 10 years they have raised over £25,000.
“I’ve done many things to raise money for the RNIB.
“I used to do abseiling, I got teams up to Blackburn Rovers’ stand and we used to abseil from the top of the stand to the bottom.
“We had up to 20 ropes and would raise between £5k and £10k each time.
“I’ve abseiled from Bowland Tower at St Martin’s College.
“The darts player Alan Warriner did an abseil for us, he looked a bit green at the top!
“I once did a jail and bail, with what was then Bay Radio. John Gilmore was there, as well as four or five councillors.
“We all had jail outfits on and I was arrested at the Spar in Torrisholme.
“I was handcuffed and they put me in a minibus. One other person was arrested at The William Mitchell, one at the town hall, one on the promenade, and two or three in Lancaster.
“They dropped us off at the bus station and we had to walk up to the prison and get locked up.
“We had our fingerprints done and there was one councillor who no-one would pay to bail out!
“We raised £5k for the charity with that event.
“We’ve done eight cross bay walks and people would come from all over England and Scotland to take part.
“We would raise between £2,500 and £5,000 on each walk.”
“We have also done a bus pull down Morecambe promenade.”
Keith’s wife and their two daughters decorated a bus with banners and there were 25 teams of 10 people to pull the bus.
Each team had to raise £1000, £100 per person.
The teams had to pull the bus from The Midland hotel down to Northumberland Street and the fastest team was the winner.
Carol, 74, said: “The bus pull was the same day Lady Diana died and we were going to cancel it but it’s what she would have wanted as she supported a lot of charities.”
Keith said: “A pile of pennies was a popular way to raise money. There was a wooden plinth that was nine inches square with a pole in the middle. The idea was to build the pile of money up to raise money for the RNIB.
“The George Hotel in Torrisholme had to have a special plinth built that was 18 inches square because the bar was starting to sag in the middle with the weight of the coins!
“There was £1500 in copper and silver. We had to hold a blanket under it and it came off the bar in a big lump which we had to carry into the minibus.
“We collected 10 of those money towers in one night, The Fox and Goose in Lancaster raised £750.”
Keith’s wife Carol has been fundraising with him for 17 or 18 years since she finished work.
She helps him do all the coppering up, counting the money out and putting into bags to take to the bank.
Keith suffers from diabetes and has developed glaucoma and retinal damage as a result.
This has left him blind in one eye and with only 10% in the other eye. He will soon be totally blind.
He said: “I was doing the fundraising for 18 years before my sight started to go. It’s made me dig my heels in more and you realise what you are doing the fundraising for. You don’t realise how valuable your sight is.
“You have to make the most of it while you can.”
Keith was born in Stalybridge in Cheshire and has two daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He used to work in demolition and said: “I have demolished half of Preston.”
He has also driven Ribble buses and worked for an insurance company.
Keith said: “I would like to have done a bungee jump to raise money for the charity. I do feel proud now because I know what it’s like to be blind or partially-sighted.
“I’m glad I chose this charity because I could have chosen any charity.
“100% of what we collect comes back to the local area.
“We’ve spent thousands of hours doing it.
“Now there is nobody left to carry on the fundraising when I retire.
“You need a bit of energy and you meet a lot of different people. You get on with the public and it gets you out to different areas.
“It’s not just collecting you have to count it out and put it in £5 and £1 bags separately.
“Now you can just pick a cloth bag up and take it to the bank and empty it and it gives you a total.
“I’d like to say a special thank you to the shop on Ryelands Estate, the kids on Ryelands have been absolutely brilliant.
“We must have raised £15k from the Sooty box and the money spinner.
“The fish and chip shop on Highfield Terrace in Carnforth has raised over £5k and always give us an extra £20 at Christmas.
“Once we got a call to K Shoes in Blackpool who had a money spinner which needed emptying because it was absolutely full.
“When we got there and saw that the money was coming out of the plastic top, I couldn’t believe it. It had been there for five years and no-one had emptied it.
“We had 31 cloth bags full of money from that money spinner.
“The car was full of money. We got to 50mph and the front end started to come up. It took us nearly three hours to get home.
“Even a few pence makes a difference. The money goes towards the talking book service, books for children, training for staff, training to read braille, special schools for the blind.
“If you are born with blindness it’s not as hard as if you become blind later in life.
“I used to love football, particularly Manchester City, I really miss that.
“I used to go down to Morecambe Cricket Club and my friend Graham used to give me a running commentary on the cricket match.
“I played snooker at the Jubilee Club and won the singles domino handicap for Lancaster and Morecambe. I miss playing dominoes.
“You can get dominoes with raised spots on but it is hard to play. It is hard to learn braille because I haven’t got the patience.
“I have talking books and go up to Galloway’s for walking sticks, glasses and other things.” The couple attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace and met the Duke of Edinburgh in 1993.
Carol said: “He said hello and asked us what charity we were representing and said keep up the good work.”
Keith said: “It was a lovely experience and nice to think the RNIB appreciate the work I do for them. I’ve really enjoyed my 35 years and even more as I’ve gone on and I’ve seen the rewards that I’ve worked for.
“ Together we have raised just short of £450,000 for the RNIB.”
RNIB’s regional volunteer fundraising manager, Neil Grainey said: “Keith and Carol Ainsworth are amazing people and volunteers who have been a tremendous addition to the Sooty box collection team at RNIB for 35 years.
“Without people like Keith and Carol, who literally go the extra mile to help others, we wouldn’t be able to provide the services that we do.
“We are keen to continue Keith and Carol’s brilliant legacy and need up to four volunteers to cover Morecambe, Lancaster, Heysham and Carnforth.
“We are always on the lookout for fresh faces to help us find new homes for Sooty and would welcome new volunteers from all over Lancashire and the North West.”
l Anyone who is interested in volunteering as a Sooty box collector can call 0345 345 0054, email firstname.lastname@example.org or find more information and register their interest by visiting www.rnib.org.uk/sooty.