In October last year tragedy struck my social circle. Overnight my Facebook feed was full of tributes to a young man, Johnny Mackay, who had tragically taken his own life. I remembered Johnny fondly from my days of catching the bus home from school. He was always smiling, extremely friendly and would always stop and say hello. Suffering from a number of problems it turned out Johnny had reached a dark place in his life and felt like there was no other way out. Mental health has always been something important to me, with depression and anxiety issues plaguing many of my family and friends. After finding out about the suicide of a dear friend just a couple of years previously Johnny's death was a fresh reminder of the pain some people carry around inside. My friends Rac and Georgie, who were friends with Johnny, wanted to do something to help others who may find themselves in a similar dark place. Together with Johnny's mum and sister they started Johnny's Happy Place with the aim of creating an environment where people could be themselves, eat, laugh, create and socialise. They put out a call on Facebook for volunteers who wanted to help with their new project. After seeing the grief amongst my friends and feeling their pain I wanted to do something to help and immediately offered my services. The result was an illustration of Johnny balancing a bike on his chin (something he was very skilled at!) which they are now using as their logo. This spring Johnny's sister Charlotte got in touch about a children's story Johnny had written before he died. They wanted to self-publish and asked if I could do the illustrations. This was how I become involved with the lovely Norman the Caterpillar.
After months of working with Charlotte last weekend saw the book launch event for Norman. It was a wonderful afternoon with tons of activities for kids, an excellent reading of the book and loads of Norman-themed stuff. My absolute favourite thing was the Norman the Caterpillar cake made by Charlotte's cousin. An absolute masterpiece! Hundreds of people showed up, filling and overflowing the venue. By the end of the day over 200 copies of the book were sold. Below are some pictures from the day.
It was an honour to work on this project and be able to bring Johnny's story to life. It was a pleasure to think that last weekend hundreds of children met Norman and Cynthia for the first time and I can only hope they will go on to become a bedtime story favourite. The kids in our place absolutely adored it. The story has such a wonderful message and to quote Stephen Fry:
"Everyone who travels in a different direction will fall in love with this delightful book."
Less than a year since starting, the girls have hosted several fundraising events and have set up Johnny's Happy Place cafe in Kettering. The cafe is at the old Keystone building on Rockingham Road where I used to spend a lot of my free time at gigs and skateboarding. They completely transformed the space I remembered into a lovely little cafe which is currently open on Saturdays and serves drinks, cakes and hot food with the menu continuing to be expanded. If you're ever in the area you should drop by.