Meningitis Now staff member Andy Hopkinson

Community Ambassador Alison attends a Royal Garden Party

Andy Hopkinson | 25th May 2022

It’s Royal Garden Party season again and one of the very special guests invited to attend last week was our Community Ambassador Alison Walker

Meningitis Now Community Ambassador Ali Walker attends Buckingham Palace garden party

Fittingly, with other royals now standing in for the Queen at these traditional events, Alison met and chatted with Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex, our hugely supportive Royal Patron. Here Alison reflects on her day and how it felt to be invited.

“In early February 2020 I had a phone call from Tom Nutt (our chief executive) that surprised me with news I never thought I would receive. I’d been nominated to attend a Buckingham Palace Garden Party. 

“My nomination highlighted the varied ways I’ve supported Meningitis Now, being a busy ambassador and inspiring my children to follow my example.

“My meningitis experience has been well documented, and Hannah’s story told many times. 

“Losing a child is probably the most devastating thing in the world and you try to find comfort or reason to explain why this happened. What did I do wrong?  I still don’t know. 

Repay the charity that had probably saved my life

“So, I started volunteering, mainly because I wanted to ‘repay’ the charity that had probably saved my life. As I carried on turning up at events and giving my time, I realised I really enjoyed it and more importantly I found it extremely cathartic. People in my situation regularly describe wanting to find a ‘purpose’ in life, perhaps also a reason for carrying on.

“So many times, I have listened to a bereaved person wanting to make sure somebody doesn’t go through the same experience, and it is that thought that drove me in the early days. Sadly, I still hear relatives voice those same thoughts. 

“The second and more relevant motive for me nowadays is reflecting on all the things I’ve done over almost 19 years that I would never have experienced had Hannah not died. I’ve heard it quite often called the “Sliding Doors effect” if you like (the film starring Gwyneth Paltrow). Sometimes friends have commented that I could have ticked off some experiences if Hannah was still here, but I prefer to stick to my version. 

“Navigating day to day life as a bereaved mother is challenging and being careful and cautious becomes a large part of your new life. You must protect your vulnerable side and work very hard to appear ‘normal’.

Looking for positives fills your thoughts

“Looking for positives fills your thoughts, so that the dark times can feel a little brighter. 

“So, back in February 2020 when I first read the nomination, after the first rush of emotion, I realised that me just getting on with things, seeking positives, supporting events, and dragging my poor children along with me had made such an impact!!! 

“My first instinct was to turn down the invitation, as it would be way out of my comfort zone. My family and friends will tell you I don’t do dressing up (especially the dress bit!), I prefer to be behind the camera, not in front of it and most of all I very much don’t like being ‘the centre of attention’ or talking about myself! I then thought about my parents (both not here anymore) and how proud they would have been of me, and of course Hannah.

“So, I said yes and broke the news to my sister that she was coming to Buckingham Palace with me. 

“Then Covid happened and everything got cancelled.

“February 2022, and I had an email from Tom Nutt asking if I still wanted to go to Buckingham Palace. Oh yes, I do! 

What on earth to wear

“The panic set in, as this was imminent, and I had to figure out what on earth to wear (my sister had bought her outfit about two days after me telling her in 2020!).

“After many sleepless nights, I had an epiphany and booked a personal stylist at a well-known department store to sort me out. My sister came along for moral support. Five hours later I was all kitted out!

“The invitations came with a whole pile of instructions and then an email telling me that The Countess of Wessex would like to meet me on the day! That sent my sister into mild panic.

“So, Wednesday 18 May finally dawned and over two years after the initial email, this was the day. 

“A small bag, two forms of ID (one photographic), a fully charged phone, a small, fully charged camera, comfortable shoes, posh, slightly uncomfortable shoes, a small snack, a fascinator (I never thought I would have a need for one), the little green slip of paper that lets you through the gates and a small pair of pink baby socks.

Standing and waiting

“There’s a lot of standing and waiting on the day of a Garden Party, but I don’t think anybody minds. We were second through the gates (we were there waiting for over an hour) straight to the enormous tea tent for a glass of lemon squash, a visit to the very nice loos (selfie in mirror of course) and back to the western terrace steps for a brief on meeting Sophie. Standing on the terrace reminding myself about Hannah and Meningitis Now, trying to prep what to say and of course not to embarrass myself. 

Meningitis Now Community Ambassador Ali Walker attends Buckingham Palace garden party

“We were led down to the lawn and placed in the correct place, briefed again… curtsy, Your Royal Highness, Ma’am as in ham, but don’t worry if you don’t do it all, you’re here to enjoy yourself! 

“So, The National Anthem starts and there’s Edward, Sophie and Catherine on the steps, just completely surreal. 

“We met Sophie, I don’t think I embarrassed myself, we got to the tea tent and had some wonderful nibbles (see photo) toasting Hannah with Garden Party Tea. We took time to walk around the gardens and take in everything, you only get to attend once, and made our way back to the Royal Tea Tent to see our hosts leave.

Meningitis Now Community Ambassador Ali Walker attends Buckingham Palace garden party

Give it all back

“The National Anthem was played just before 6pm to let us know it was time to leave. One last look and we were gone, back to normal life and sharing our experience with friends and family.

“I remember probably about 15 years ago reading about someone going to a Garden Party and thinking I’ll never get that chance. Well, here’s the thing - I did. I have Hannah to thank for that, but as always with my life post Hannah’s death it is entirely bittersweet. 

“PS: I would give it all back if I had my youngest daughter here with me, healthy, happy and living her life to the full.”

Next week, 1 to 7 June, marks this year’s Volunteers’ Week – an opportunity to say thank you to all our wonderful volunteers. Thank you Alison for representing us so ably at the Buckingham Palace Garden Party, sharing your impressions of the day here and everything you and your family do to support our work.