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Community / Selfless Sonia recognised in Queen’s honours list

Sonia Inkster. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

ONE of the pillars of the Scalloway community, Sonia Inkster, has described herself as “humbled” after being awarded a BEM (British Empire Medal) – and swiftly dedicated it to all volunteers in the village.

The 70-year-old Orcadian, who made Shetland her home in 1973, admitted it was “a bit of a shock” when she found out back in June that she was included in the Queen’s birthday honours list this year. She has even kept it a secret from her husband Gibby for the past four months.

Described in the accompanying publicity as simply “the heartbeat of Scalloway” whose “selfless caring, fundraising and inspiration has been the lifeblood of the community for over 40 years”, since retiring in 2006 Sonia has committed much of her time to Scalloway Youth Centre.

She tells Shetland News that when she first moved to the community she attended coffee mornings run by Peggy, Sylvia and Hilda (“the three Nicolson brothers’ wives”). The lesson she learned was that “you can achieve a lot but you can also have a lot of fun, build up friendships through volunteering.”

Volunteering was in her blood from a young age as an active committee member of Stromness Youth Club during her upbringing.

After marrying Gibby and moving to Shetland she became involved in the local playgroup (they have three sons, Robert, Gilbert and Hunter, five grandchildren and a step-grandson).

She is described as the “go-to person to help or organise any voluntary activity for young and old alike in Scalloway”. Since 1979 she has been secretary of the local Fraser Park Trust, looking after the recreation facility incorporating a play park, football pitch and multicourt.

For over a decade from 1981 she organised the Scalloway Swimming Club, taking 50-80 local children to the indoor pool in Lerwick until the village’s own indoor pool opened in 1993.

In the mid-1980s she started a 50-plus club and a junior youth club. Back then vandalism was proving to be an issue in Scalloway and she rectified that by engaging with the culprits, organising activities to give them a more positive focus.

She spent a decade until 1996 as an exemplary community worker for the SIC’s department of leisure and recreation prior to a 10-year stint as Islesburgh Community Centre’s assistant manager.

After taking early retirement 14 years ago Sonia’s voluntary work has escalated. In 2010 she was appointed Scalloway Youth Centre Trust’s chairwoman. Even after having both hips replaced, she is as busy as ever running a 60-plus drop-in with exercise, speakers, crafts, games, home baking and cooking a monthly meal.

So where does she find the drive? “You just saw different things that was needing to be done, found the need to do it and met that need. The youth centre has been very active [and that’s thanks to] the trustees, the volunteers and the staff – the staff are so supportive.”

When Scalloway lost its secondary school department, it was identified that there was a need to ensure young people still had somewhere locally to socialise. She was involved in establishing a youth café project that has now run very successfully for seven years and counting.

“There’s loads of young people volunteering [through the café] – someone had done 500 hours and got their Saltire Award, and when you see that happening in the younger age group you know that volunteering is still strong in a community.”

Much of that activity has, of course, been brought to a standstill by Covid-19 this year.

The youth centre has only just reopened on 3 October for young people, but with so many over 60s vulnerable to the virus “we don’t feel we can open that up at the moment”.

“I have tried to keep in touch with as many of them as I can back and fore,” Sonia said. “That’s the group that’s in most need [of social contact] just now.”  

She has frequently repeated the saying “no one can do everything, everyone can do something and together we can do it all”, which she remembers reading at college.

Close variations on the quote are attributed to various writers down the years, but when the late John Nicolson used it he referred to it as “Sonia Inkster’s words” – and why not?

“Behind every volunteer there is lots of support,” she added. “None more so than my husband and my family. They’ve been a really good support to me over the years, and that’s how I’ve maybe achieved so much in the community.

“I’m very humbled, and I’ll receive it on behalf of everybody that’s volunteering.” 

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