Wing-walking, skydiving, stuffy costumes – Donna Louise Armstrong will stop at nothing on her fundraising mission to improve the lives of UK military veterans.
The manager of a Renfrewshire osteopathic clinic has a special motivation for her charitable endeavours – the memory of her nephew Kyle, killed at age 21 while on patrol in Afghanistan. He and two comrades lost their lives in 2009 after their vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device in Helmand province.
“We were all absolutely broken when we heard the news,” she says.
When meeting Donna, the first thing that immediately catches your eye is her welcoming smile. That, and her smooth accent infused with undertones that tell of 26 years spent living in South Africa.
She is pleasant, talkative, and, intentionally or not, makes everyone feel at ease. So much so they may not notice the incredible fire, determination and spirit behind her polite demeanour. She shares these attributes with soldiers and veterans, the people whose lives she’s vowed to change.
Closeness to the Armed Forces
Donna’s affiliation with the army started the moment she was born. Her father was a member of the Royal Corps of Signals and she was born on a military base in Laarbruch, former West Germany.
Her nephew’s enlistment brought her even closer to the army. Reflecting on Kyle’s loss, who was serving under the Parachute Regiment when he was killed, Donna says: “We were very proud of him.”
Known as the airborne brotherhood, Kyle loved his regiment and wore the Paratrooper’s badge with pride.
A few months after his passing she made a promise: “I decided then that … I wanted to give back. I didn’t serve, but I wanted to help Kyle’s brothers. I couldn’t help him anymore. I just decided the rest of the time that I got left, I’ll do what I can.”
From skydiving to shapeshifting
She began by fundraising money for active soldiers. However, the interaction with them was rarely face-to-face due to their deployment. As a result, Donna became more and more involved with the veteran’s community, which she now fondly calls her family.
“What I was doing was hands on – helping people I knew and had a relationship with. These were real people and not just cases or statistics.”
The fundraising activities she’s done during her volunteering career that spans over 11 years include: skydiving, wing walking, zip gliding, song recording, and participating at a burlesque calendar photoshoot.
The last venture quickly became her least favourite: “Despite it being an empowering experience, it was the most frightening thing because it was so out of my comfort zone. I’m just so not glamorous. I’d rather jump out of a plane again.”
It doesn’t come as a great surprise that skydiving is a favourite of Donna’s. “It’s like dancing in the sky. There’s nothing on your mind, it’s just you and the clouds. There’s no sensation like it, it’s amazing. I love it.”
On most days, Donna slips into her second skin – her smile hidden behind a pair of lifeless eyes, her body swallowed by heavy, often uncomfortable fabrics. Dressing up for charity has now become her trademark.
The moment she steps into one of her costumes, Donna ceases to exist. When fundraising for PoppyScotland, she becomes a giant poppy flower. When the Kiltwalk is on, she turns into a blue Wendy house. When it’s time to gather funds for the charity she co-founded, the Homeless Veterans Project, the Paddington Bear’s service starts.
When it comes to the costumes, “it’s not only about raising money. It’s about good will, and it’s about raising the profile of the charity,” she explains.
Improving veterans’ lives
At a young age, Donna witnessed her father’s struggle to settle into civilian life upon their return to Scotland. “When a veteran leaves the army, I feel he is treated like a piece of equipment. And when he’s leaving, he’s obsolete, he’s basically a decommissioned weapon.”
Hazel Mollison, a spokesperson for PoppyScotland, a nation-wide veteran-centred charity that Donna is an area co-ordinator for, says “our Armed Forces and their families make extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf. In the course of their work, they will risk injury and miss time with their own family to protect us, while some face life-long challenges after service.”
Not knowing how to responsibly manage their finances after years in the service, many discharged soldiers waste their resettlement allowance.
“Your typical squaddie can’t manage money, because everything’s paid for him, and the rest of his wages are given to him – that’s spending money, beer money,” Donna explains. Many of them end up addicted to drugs and are left alone to deal with any physical or mental effects of deployment.
According to Hazel, “those who serve or have served should be able to live life fully without disadvantage after service. No veteran should live without the prospect of employment, good health and a home.”
That’s where the Homeless Veterans Project, a charity purposefully represented by the homeless Paddington Bear during fundraising campaigns, enters the picture.
Despite receiving the President’s Award in 2021, Donna wished to provide hands-on services; something which a charity of PoppyScotland’s size could not accommodate. “I know the funds are well spent. And I know where the money goes. But I don’t physically see it,” she says.
While still being a “true inspiration to others and consistently promoting PoppyScotland’s work,” in Hazel’s eyes, Donna’s primary focus at the present is to work with the charity she has co-founded.
“We don’t only do the fundraising; we do the groundwork as well. We do the outreach. And we look after the veterans. So, we’ve got the pleasure of interacting and helping someone on a very personal level. And that to me is lovely. I really enjoy doing that – making a difference to one person’s life.”
The charity provides funding for temporary council accommodation and can pay for bed and breakfast if the former is not available. Apart from adopting the role of Paddington Bear, Donna often becomes a joiner, teacher and expert on taxes and benefits.
“We’re like mom and dad to the veterans, trying to show them how to do it themselves. So that’s quite important.”
Those who make a change
Tom Arthur, an MSP for South Renfrewshire, explains that veterans “can face specific challenges when transitioning from military life such as finding suitable housing and employment. Donna and others like her have an invaluable role to play in our communities” for this reason.
Hazel adds that “volunteers such as Donna are the lifeblood (of veteran-centred charities such as PoppyScotland); it simply wouldn’t exist without them. Donna’s commitment and dedication have been extraordinary, both in driving the success of her local Poppy Appeal and her tireless and creative fundraising activities.”
Although she has won numerous awards, dressed up in the craziest of costumes, and participated in the wildest of activities, Donna remains humble.
“I’m not a veteran. I’m not a wealthy person. I’m not a professional fundraiser. I’m just an ordinary person who cares and is willing to give a little bit of her time.’
After improving the lives of dozens of local veterans, she believes that anyone can bring about change in their own way.
“Everybody can do something, no matter how small. Somebody can put a pound in a tin. Somebody can share a post on Facebook or hand out a flyer or throw a tea and coffee, you know, function. I think that everybody should do something. If we can’t make life better for other people, why are we here?”