Aileen Belsberg first worked with fund-raiser and philanthropist Gina Long as a student on work experience... but the enthusiastic youngster made a lasting impression.
Ten years later, out of the blue, came an offer she simply couldn’t refuse. And Aileen has now stepped into Gina’s shoes as chief executive of GeeWizz, the Suffolk-based charity she founded in 2015. Over the past six years, support from GeeWizz has made a huge difference to the lives of children and young people in Suffolk living with disabilities and life-limiting conditions. It has paid for equipment and house adaptations, provided sponsorship, financed school projects and much more.
So for Aileen it was not a hard decision. “I absolutely love what GeeWizz is, and what it stands for and, of course, I absolutely wanted to be part of it,” she says. “It brings so much job satisfaction.” But the charity was yet to be formed when in 2011 she volunteered for work experience while studying travel and tourism at West Suffolk College. At the time Gina – who over the years has raised millions of pounds for charity – was putting together the first of her global online auctions. Aileen was introduced to her by a college contact and was allowed to miss some classes so that she could volunteer. She helped Gina with the Sir Bobby Robson Breakthrough Auction, which raised more than £200,000.
After college she studied event management at university, seizing the chance to gain knowledge in as many different fields as possible – all of which has helped prepare her for her GeeWizz role. “I loved to learn about everything and do everything,” she says. For the past four years she has been working as product manager for a beauty company where her role covered everything from coming up with ideas for products, to putting them to market. “I’d be juggling 50 projects at once,” she says.
“Here it’s the same. Never a dull day. One day I’ll be doing budgets and cashflows, then the Love All Auction, or events, or visiting a child we are supporting, which is absolutely my favourite part. It brings it all home to you why we are doing this.”
Aileen took on the chief executive role in June. “Gina called me out of the blue in April and said ‘what are you doing with your life? I’d like to take a step back, and would you like to take over?’” Together, they went to meet Bury’s disability football team – one of the ventures supported by GeeWizz. By the time she got home, Aileen’s mind was made up. “I came away and said to my partner, I can’t walk away from that. It was a very quick decision.”
A key principle behind GeeWizz is transparency, with donors able to see exactly how their money is being spent. “Everything is so local. You can see who you are helping and where you are helping,” says Aileen. “We can control exactly where their money is going. We have so many incredible supporters – businesses and individuals – in the local area who support us by buying, donating, doing things in kind, and sponsorship.”
One of the charity’s biggest ongoing projects is a new playground at the Thomas Wolsey School for children with special educational needs. The Ipswich school takes pupils from all over Suffolk with complex physical, medical or sensory needs with associated learning difficulties. Earlier this year, renowned artist Maggi Hambling donated a painting which was raffled and raised more than £5,000 for an arts area there. The whole playground is due to be finished next year. “Last time I went to Thomas Wolsey School the children were there, and we saw them using the equipment,” says Aileen. “I was able to talk to them as well and it was just magic.”
GeeWizz has just donated £50,000 over three years to Theatre Royal, Bury, for its non-verbal programme. “It’s incredible,” says Aileen, “allowing children to express themselves without the need for words.” They are also giving tens of thousands of pounds for a SEND and music pod and disabled toilets at the Sir Robert Hitcham School, in Framlingham, including £15,000 from last year’s Ed Sheeran Made in Suffolk Auction. And another recent beneficiary is an eight year-old boy whose serious health problems include muscular dystrophy and epilepsy. “His family has moved into a house with a jacuzzi and they found it really helps him relax and helps with his seizures. We are buying them a hoist to make it easier for them to lift him in and out.”
Michelle Anastasiadis, daughter of ex-footballer Alan Brazil, is a staunch GeeWizz supporter, running events and donating money. “Through her first event this year we raised enough to buy a little boy with cerebral palsy a new wheelchair,” says Aileen. “Dylan Murray, who’s nine, has a real passion for tennis and he was growing out of his wheelchair and wasn’t able to play any more. This will enable him to carry on playing.” GeeWizz’s support for tennis players with disabilities does not stop there. Its share of the proceeds from this month’s Love All Auction – co-organised by Gina – will go towards an all-inclusive tennis programme run by Suffolk Lawn Tennis Association.
The charity has always been run by a surprisingly small team and is based in an office at Fornham St Martin, near Bury. Aileen works alongside part-time community fund-raising officer Crystal Barber. Gina, with her wealth of knowledge and experience, still devotes hours to the charity, and volunteer Susan Rush goes in one day a week. “Crystal and I are the only people who are paid,” she says. “People are always surprised that we can do so much with so few people.”
Aileen lives with her carpenter partner, Spencer, and their German shepherd dog Theo in Barton Mills where they are renovating a cottage. Her family has lived in the village since she was 10, and she, her parents, and her sister still all have homes in the same street. She says she feels honoured to be chosen to take the charity forward. “Gina and I had formed a good relationship, but I was honoured that she thought so much of my work that I could take over from her – because it is her baby."
“We are moving now more towards projects that will create a legacy and benefit more children over a longer period of time.” But they are keen that anyone needing help should not hesitate to get in touch – especially families who cannot afford things their seriously ill or disabled children really need. “My message is if anyone needs help come and talk to us because if we can help we will,” says Aileen.
They are also keen to hear from people willing to raise money for their work, and from anyone who could volunteer to help at events. June’s Midsummer Night’s Party is already sold out with a waiting list. The last time the event was held, in 2019, it raised more than £75,000.
Read the article by Barbara Eeles and Suffolk News here