Two volunteers motivated by their love of cycling and Northern Ireland’s greenways have been recognised at Sustrans Volunteer Awards.
Aparna Jamgade who is originally from India, now living in Belfast, won the Volunteer Award and Maryam Sholevar, from Iran came runner up. Their diverse paths crossed as Sustrans’ volunteers in Northern Ireland where they share a joy of cycling and admiration for the scenic National Cycle Network (NCN).
Aparna (37) came to Belfast to do a Masters in Architecture and is now settled in the city with her husband and two young children. She won the Volunteer Award for her dedicated work mapping volunteers across Northern Ireland through our mapping and database systems.
Maryam Sholevar (36) came runner up for her commitment to supporting Sustrans events, including a series of cycling health fairs aimed at refugees in Belfast. A lecturer in banking and finance, she has been carrying out academic research in Northern Ireland.
The variety of volunteering opportunities with Sustrans meant the pair met for the first time at the Awards ceremony this week.
"So where are you from?” Aparna asked Maryam.
"I’m your neighbour,” she replied.
"Yes, I’m from Persia.”
They both laughed.
These two very different and modest volunteers certainly try to live up to the ideal of good neighbours. Both highly skilled young women came to Northern Ireland and have made a valuable contribution to the work of Sustrans. So what motivated them to volunteer?
"In India, I always cycled to school and university. When I came here we got bicycles and I cycled with my daughter to the toddler groups on the Lagan towpath (National Route 9). I just wanted to take my daughter to see the ducks and birds. We don’t have greenways in India. I always cycled on normal roads. I was amazed that there were cycle paths dedicated to walkers and cyclists. I was amazed by the very concept.
Then one day I met a Sustrans volunteer on the path who was carrying out a survey. He was surveying me but I started to ask him so many questions about the path,” she laughs in her self-deprecating way. "I realised then there was a charity looking after the path and I thought that’s what I want to do."
It was obviously fate, as Aparna then discovered a Sustrans stall at her university’s Freshers Fair and decided to sign up as a volunteer.
"Traffic in India is worse than here. As a mother with children I love the towpath and being able to cycle care-free of traffic."
Aparna was thrilled to receive the Volunteer Award.
“ I feel I’ve achieved something – that feeling of achievement when you give your time to people who appreciate it is special. There is no organisation like Sustrans so dedicated to getting people on bikes. ”
Volunteering is in Maryam’s blood. She is a Rotary Club member and helps out with Youth Action in Northern Ireland, as well as the SOS Bus in Belfast city centre. She came to Belfast after four years lecturing in Ethiopia so you could say she has a sense of adventure.
"I do have this adventurous side of me! I was looking for some cycle route maps on your website and I saw Sustrans was looking for volunteer rangers," she said her face lighting up. "Oh, a ranger! I thought ‘I would love to be a ranger'."
Maryam met Sustrans Volunteer Co-ordinator Rachael Ludlow-Williams who she said showed her the bigger picture of changing people’s lifestyles through walking and cycling.
"Sustrans was my first step into Northern Ireland society," said Maryam. "Through volunteering I met many amazing people and I’ve made close friends through Sustrans. I became a member of Jackie's (Jackie Mitchell, fellow volunteer) group led rides and I learnt many skills. She has been such a mentor to me and taken me to many different areas of Northern Ireland by bike."
The joy of cycling is felt more intensely for Maryam as her native Iran frowns upon women riding bikes.
"It is not a written law but it is a bit hard to ride a bike as a woman there,” she said frowning but then adds with glee. “Since I’ve been in Northern Ireland I’ve bought three bikes. Cycling helps me keep in shape especially as I like all the sweet stuff you can get here and you don’t need to wear lycra to ride a bike.”
Sustrans' Volunteer Award is all the sweeter for Maryam.
"It is heart-melting to get this award. I’ve just enjoyed my time volunteering and for my enjoyment you are rewarding me."