How can a small group of volunteers with perfect timing change the future of a project with hiccups?


Over the last couple of months, I’ve been witness to a genuinely remarkable process, and it’s high time I told you a little more about it – the process itself and the people involved.

Those of you who read the forum fairly regularly may well remember the beginning of this unusual story – right back at the start of October, when Iestyn let the forum know that Cat had been in hospital for emergency surgery on a slipped disc.  Here’s the thread (for those who like history!):

It transpired that Cat had (eventually) been diagnosed with Cauda Equina Syndrome, and that there were very real questions about whether or not she would be able to return to work – which remain by no means resolved.

Not quite a fortnight later, Iestyn had the unpleasant job of letting you all know that I’d decided to be a copy-cat and get myself (temporarily) hospitalised with a painful back.  It’s not something I’ve felt particularly comfortable talking about in any detail, because although it struck me as fairly traumatic, I’m easily traumatised, and I’ve been keenly aware that what I’ve been going through pales into insignificance compared to the challenges faced by Cat, and the pressure on Iestyn.

I’m very glad Iestyn shared the news with the forum, though – because that’s when the magic began:

Huw (who had already been helping make the Latin lessons reach existence) put his hand very firmly in the air, and with enormous kindness more or less told us it was time for some delegation.

Huw’s kindness inspired me to put a fuller story on the forum, with more details about how things stood for us, including letting you know that Iestyn didn’t receive a salary from SSi (something else I don’t feel very good about, although in terms of what we’re trying to do, it has so far made business sense, even if it doesn’t always feel as though it makes emotional sense).  That fuller story is here:

The process of sharing our situation in more detail improved my focus, and by the next day I knew that what I needed help with more than anything was the process of importing finished sound files into the Spennyware – the software that Spenny so kindly built for us, which makes the practice sessions possible and the lesson production massively easier than was originally the case.  So I posted a plea for volunteers:

Why was this so important?

The lesson importing process wasn’t just a serious time commitment, it was also something of an odd psychological block for me – the combination of the time element it required, the slight sense of fear that I’d make a small mistake of some kind (as if that would be a disaster!) and the peculiar dread I have of hearing the completed audio files (in case they trigger my mostly-latent perfectionism well enough for me to become convinced that they won’t work properly) – the whole lot of it made this step my own personal SSiBugbear.

I was being pulled along through a range of increasingly powerful drugs for pain relief, trying to find a balance between being alert enough to do any work of value, but stupified enough not to feel much pain (unlike Catrin and, I suspect, unlike Cat, I’m pretty much a flat-out coward when it comes to physical pain, which I like to blame on the world’s only negative pain threshold).  The more generally useless I became, the more of a block the lesson importing became.

But our little company was about to be changed quite remarkably

Huw and Louis kicked off a feeding frenzy of technical and practical support, followed immediately by Jeff, Marie, Patricia, Gavin, and Mike all putting their shoulders to the wheel.

I found a project management tool called which has turned out to be absolutely excellent, Huw threw himself into managing it, with Louis (who’d already been importing Dutch lessons into the Spennyware) helping get people up to speed via documentation and personal support – and then to top it all off, Jeff started rewriting the Spennyware to make it quite remarkably more efficient based on all the things we’ve learned that we need since Spenny first wrote it several years ago.

It was a privilege to witness.

More than that, it was an inspiration.

It gave me a whole new level of energy at a time when I was feeling very far from my best – watching the way this team of passionate, intelligent, kind and hard-working people tore problems to pieces every time I sniffed something self-pitying like ‘But why is that lesson longer than I wanted it to be?’ was, well, it was… um.  It was beyond my ability to describe, and I enjoy describing things.

Here, how about this: it felt a little bit like discovering that someone had just fitted me out with a pair of wings.

Here we are, two months down the line from the beginning of this story, and this team of volunteers have put together a system that allows us to throw Spanish, Welsh, Cornish, Dutch audio files up onto Breeze, forget about them entirely, and then download the completed lessons ready for publishing as soon as we see they’ve reached the ‘Done’ column.

What would have happened without these people?

Iestyn and I had a ‘meeting’ in the Llwynogod Blin near Dolgellau (otherwise known as the Cross Foxes 😉 ) a week or so ago – we like to call them ‘meetings’, because ‘Iestyn and I spent the entire day in a pub talking excitedly at the same time as each other‘ sounds as though we’re not taking ‘running a business’ seriously enough.

One of the things that we agreed was that this was a key time for the dream we’ve been sharing for the last five years.  In the words of Walter Tevis, who wrote the superb novel ‘The Hustler‘ from which the (good, but not half as good as the book!) film was made, this was our ‘clutch’:

‘All you can do is play the percentages, play your best game, and when that critical bet comes – in every game there is always a critical bet – you hold your stomach tight and you push hard.  That’s the clutch… …but you got to know when the clutch in the game is, you got to know and you got to bear down, no matter what kind of voice is telling you to relax.’

I’m not one for giving in.  Nor is Iestyn.  We were never about to switch the lights out.

But Huw, Louis, Jeff, Marie, Patricia, Gavin, and Mike gave us wings just as we were staring into our ‘clutch’, and thinking that it looked like a heck of a challenge.

If they hadn’t, I think we’d have changed gear – massively – from fourth or fifth all the way back down to first – and the loss of momentum might even have meant that however hard we tried, we just wouldn’t have been able to keep things going.

But with what they’ve done (and are still doing!), with my gradual reduction of pain killers (I’m waiting to hear on an X-ray, but I’m getting there – yesterday was my first day without painkillers in over four months), with Ifan taking his own glorious risk of coming on board with us, I’m now convinced that 2014 is going to be the year we really start to spread our wings.

I don’t know how to thank those seven people enough.

I also don’t know how to thank them without talking about all the dozens of people who’ve helped turn an idea into a living, kicking, growing dream over the last five years, in dozens of different ways – my gratitude to these seven people at this key moment doesn’t change or lessen my gratitude to all the remarkable things that have been supported or added or built by all our remarkable volunteers.

I think I’ll just remember this particular Magnificent Seven as having been our wings, when we most needed to be lifted up.


6 responses to “How can a small group of volunteers with perfect timing change the future of a project with hiccups?

    • Ww, diolch yn fawr, that looks very interesting indeed, will definitely be bookmarking and reading in detail…:-)

      Too kind? I think I sell you all a bit short, to be honest. If I could find a way to be too kind, I’d give it my best shot…;-)

  1. … a diolch yn fawr o fi hefyd Aran! I was only happy to help, just wish I could’ve done more instead of becoming unexpectedly busy at the time! Glad things are still moving in the right direction though – we do have some amazing people within the SSiW family, that’s true!

    • Every involvement makes a real difference, and impacts on how other people are feeling – not just us, but fellow volunteers – so the scale of value doesn’t follow a straight line of ‘hours spent’…:-)

  2. Bues i gwirfoddolwr yn Rheilffyrdd Ffestiniog ac Eryri am bumtheg mlynedd. Y maen nhw pum mil o aelodau o Gymdeithas Rheilffordd Ffestiniog a maen nhw mil o gwirfoddolwyr.

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