Death of a Bake Sale: a reflection on the rise of extreme charity events

Photo: Dave Farrance, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Dave Farrance, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Dave Farrance, Wikimedia Commons

Somehow I found myself standing at the top of Cooper’s Hill in Gloucester on a rather lovely May Bank Holiday, debating on how best to fall down its 60 odd metre length for the annual Cheese Roll Race. I looked down at the ‘hill’ (cliff) which stood at about a 70° angle and wondered why I was there. Those who know me will know that I’m not exactly the sportiest or most athletic bloke. Indeed, I haven’t really done sport in about five years and have been known to make a needed pit stop in Central for a refreshing pint of Tennent’s during the course of a tiring walk from University Hall to the Buchanan Lecture Theatre. Thus, you and I are probably wondering what possessed me to do such a thing. I reasoned that this was less of a sport and more of way to get free cheese, a primary love in my life; the prize was a wheel of the finest Double Gloucester cheese, a coveted and wonderful reward for maiming oneself if ever I saw one.

A gang of about 100 rather hard-looking Southerners surrounded me, West Country accents coupled with others from all over the world filled my ears. The battle cry went up, “CHEEEEEESSSEEEE”. Never has a more noble and majestic sound been heard. All around me two litre bottles of Taurus cider were being frantically downed in a vain attempt to numb the inevitable and impending pain. So it was with some trepidation that I lined up alongside 25 others on the top of this vertical decline to dairy glory. The cheese was released and it flew like a milky star from heaven as we pursued. I ran for about five meters before front flipping and hurtling down in a bizarre barrel rolling style of falling for the final 50 odd metres. I didn’t get the cheese. What I got was a mild concussion, what felt like a broken back and enough cuts and bruises to make it look like I’d been to a ceilidh with a cross between Edward Scissor Hands and the Hulk. You again may ask whether it was really worth it for the chance of winning a wheel of cheese and the amusement that my battered body would inevitably provide my friends. The primary reason for this reckless self-harm, other than of course the lush taste of fresh cheese, was charity and, most importantly, the apparent need for more and more extreme methods to raise money for charity.

The desire to help others has always been an admirable quality in humans, one that can be seen throughout history in countless acts of kindness and charity. However, the methods of charity seem to have taken a rather bizarre and drastic turn in modern times when compared to their historical counterparts. People now seek gruelling challenges to raise as much money as they can for their chosen charitable organisations. The fall of the bake sale has come, the rise of the extreme is here. ‘ You may ask why this drastic urge for challenge and pain has become the norm, and indeed it is something I asked myself when standing at the top of the hill. The primary answer it seems, or at least in my case is that the charities we raise these funds for, are helping people who face far greater challenges than you and I will probably ever experience. Thus we seek this test to gain at least a small understanding of the challenges that these people face on a daily basis.

From left to right: Annie Findlay, Sevi Matthews, Phoebe Jones, Alicia Anderson Photo: Phoebe Jones
From left to right: Annie Findlay, Sevi Matthews, Phoebe Jones, Alicia Anderson
Photo: Phoebe Jones

So, what extremes does a St Andrews student go to for charity when one of the most predominant trials of day-to-day life is choosing a winning chino and tweed combination for a night out at Ma Bells? To find out, I spoke to first year Phoebe Jones who, along with fellow first year Annie Findlay, set herself a rather ominous sounding challenge. Miss Jones and Miss Findlay decided that during a period of 12 months, they would set themselves a number of tasks that would test their fears, restraint and ability to act without alcohol (scary, I know). The tasks include bungee jumping off a bridge, holding tarantulas (nope), abstaining from alcohol for a month (huge nope), and most recently running the Edinburgh half marathon with fellow first years Alicia Anderson and Sevi Matthews. Miss Jones will go on to run a full marathon in September.

Phoebe Jones kindly agreed to share her motivations for undertaking this 12 months of madness: “When I was 14 years old my best friend was diagnosed with leukaemia. I don’t think I need to tell anybody the horrors of cancer, but the horrors of cancer aged 14 is something else entirely. I couldn’t bring myself to visit the hospital for the first few weeks, I was too terrified. When I did finally visit, I couldn’t believe how different the Teenage Cancer Trust ward in Birmingham was from what I had imagined. When I was there, we were Gloria and Phoebe again, not a girl with cancer and her friend scared half out of her mind.” Miss Jones adds that she is doing this challenge because she has seen first-hand just how much of an impact the charity can have on teenagers’ lives: “I’m doing this because not only did they save her life, Teenage Cancer Trust saved all of our sanity and I really do believe that the work that they do with young people suffering from cancer both during and after treatment is unique and so important.”

Another reason for this rise of the extreme is the rewarding feeling achievement that can be gained from such experiences. Miss Jones picked up on this and commented that out of all of the challenges “although the Bungee Jump was definitely the worst, it challenged my fear of heights” and that “the most rewarding moment was crossing the finish line of the Edinburgh half marathon after months of training.” We wish Miss Jones and Miss Findlay all the best with what remains of their 12 months and the amazing work they are doing.

I also spoke to first year Matt Payne who will be taking part in the St Andrews Childreach International Society trip to Kilimanjaro this summer. He told me about his reasons for climbing a mountain, and of course what intense training he has been doing to take up such a monumental challenge. When I asked him what he was most nervous about, he replied: “The fact that I’m still smoking and we leave tomorrow” adding that “fitness is a worry and of course that I wont have anywhere to charge my iPod.” This is an answer that not only I can relate to, but also that many members of the student body will also be able to sympathise with. Thus, it is imperative to train hard and prepare for such gruelling activities. Mr Payne shared some of the activities that he has been doing to prepare for the arduous walk ahead, asking me: “Does walking to the pub count?” My answer would be yes, even if others might not agree.

Again, it all comes down to the question of why someone would do this to themselves, and again, the response reflects the nature of humans to help and challenge themselves. When asked about what made him decide to take up this challenge, Mr Payne replied that “it’s for a charity called Childreach International, a wicked little charity that helps with building schools in deprived areas. Plus, I missed my gap year and fancied doing some more travelling and it was far too tempting to say no!” Good luck to Matt and the rest of the trip climbing Kilimanjaro. I must say, I don’t envy you. I find going to East Sands a trial.

It seems therefore that the norm these days is strangely extreme. Thus, the desire to challenge oneself in order to truly understand the trials and tribulations the recipients of charity face every day is becoming the thing to do. Be it through setting yourself challenges for 12 months, climbing up Kilimanjaro for a week, or falling down a hill (which nonetheless felt like Kilimanjaro). For an afternoon, the challenge gives a level of understanding whilst also providing amusement and much appreciated and needed donations. Charity comes in all forms, a donation at the church, buying a cake outside the Vic after a rabid night in 6-0-fun or, if you are so inclined, taking on the extreme. Through all this, the human desire and drive to help shines through, an admirable quality in all of its exceptionally varied forms.

If you would like to learn more about or donate to the charities mentioned above, visit: Breast Cancer UK:, Teenage Cancer Trust: and Childreach International: You can keep also keep up to date with the Kilimanjaro expedition on Twitter, by looking for #kili3 on @raretracker.


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