Gina Long MBE: ‘I think I was put on this planet to make positive change happen’ 

Gina Long MBE, trustee and founder of GeeWizz. Byline: Sonya Duncan

Gina Long MBE, trustee and founder of GeeWizz at Thomas Wolsey Ormiston Academy in Ipswich, which the charity has supported in building a new playground - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Inspirational. Fiercely determined. Compassionate. These are just three words which aptly describe 
Gina Long. 

Gina is someone who fights for what she believes in. She has a tenacity and can-do attitude that have helped her become the driving force behind charity fundraising in the region, nationally and globally, amounting to an incredible £7million and counting. 

Whether raising money for her charity GeeWizz, which helps SENDs young people and their families, or creating/organising projects such as the Ed Sheeran Legacy Auction, Gina puts her everything into all she does, and her boundless energy is infectious.  

Most recently Gina joined forces with her brother and sister, Oliver and Liz Horsman, friend Darius, and brother-in-law Mike Spencer, as they sought to collect and transport aid to Ukraine, with a fundraising page also launched on the GeeWizz website. 

“For 12 days, from March 8, we witnessed the greatness of humanity against all odds,” says Gina. “Initially the plan was to drive three transit vans to the Romanian-Ukrainian border. But an Instagram post by my daughter Ali’s folk café snowballed into support from hundreds of wonderful, selfless volunteers.

Gina and her family brought hundreds of people together in Suffolk to collect donations for Ukraine

Gina and her family brought hundreds of people together in Suffolk to collect donations for Ukraine - Credit: Contributed

“You had to be at Hall Farm to witness first-hand the greatness of the community coming together in the hope of giving help to those both in, and fleeing Ukraine – volunteers of all ages, including Laurie who, aged 96, returned for two days. For a small charity, the support we received was overwhelmingly monumental. We’re all so thankful to everyone.” 

The drive saw 20, 40ft curtain side trucks, three 7.5 tonne lorries, and three splinter vans filled with aid, delivered to the people who needed it most. 

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“The love, humility, and unity has been tangible on every level,” adds Gina. “Everyone involved was so humble. They have no idea of the collective, enormous difference they have made. We will be forever grateful to them, as I am to everyone who supports GeeWizz.” 

The fundraising effort for Ukraine was the first time in almost two years Gina had been able to work, physically, alongside others – Covid having ravaged the charity sector, with events, volunteering opportunities, collection buckets and more stopped in their tracks. 

Gina found the lockdown periods especially hard, as she’s so emotionally invested in all the families GeeWizz supports. 

“Not being able to see our children was hard – although we always stayed in touch,” she says. “We couldn’t have gatherings together because the children and young people are so vulnerable.” 

The only upside she can see from this forced period of homestays is that it enabled GeeWizz fundraising auctions to reach more people, from all over the globe. 

“Before Covid, I didn’t know what a Zoom meeting was. Now it’s second nature.” She laughs: “The one good thing is nobody had an excuse to be unavailable when I needed to speak to them about funding or auction prizes – they couldn’t go anywhere!” 

Today, with no imminent threat of further lockdowns, Gina says she’s looking forward to the positives 2022 should bring. Great lifelong friends and supporters Guy and Julie Nicholls are hosting GeeWizz’s second Midsummer Night’s Party at their home in Brightwell, with 475 people attending the Milsom catered charity event, and with Rick Parfitt Jr entertaining. “As it’s our biggest fundraiser this year, we hope to raise an awful lot of money - the fact it can go ahead is brilliant.” 

And this September, one of GeeWizz’s biggest endeavours to date comes to fruition, as a new playground, built with money raised from the Ed Sheeran: Made in Suffolk Legacy Auction, created and organised by Gina and the singer’s parents John and Imogen, opens at Thomas Wolsey Ormiston Academy.

“The auction raised over half a million pounds, and Guy Nicholls has donated an amazing £100,000 to the project – there was no funding available for the school to update the playground, and it just wasn’t fit for purpose,” Gina explains. 

Copyright Andy Abbott

The plans for the sensory playground at Thomas Wolsey Ormiston Academy - Credit: Andy Abbott

Gina long MBE, founder and trustee of GeeWhizz is pictured with landscape designer Mia Witham and Ia

Gina long MBE, founder and trustee of GeeWizz is pictured with landscape designer Mia Witham and Ian Lipman, operations manager at Thoams Wolsey Ormiston Academy - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The Thomas Wolsey is a school for SEND and neurodivergent children living in Suffolk. The new playground, designed by "amazing" Mia Witham, once complete, will have multiple spaces for the youngsters to enjoy, including beach-themed, art and farming areas, and a MUGA (multi use games area). 

“This all came off the back of John Sheeran putting together the Made in Suffolk exhibition when Ed played at Chantry Park,” Gina says. “They wanted to leave a legacy in Suffolk, and when I approached him and Imogen about the playground, they considered it the perfect fit.” 

Phil Dodd from Healeys kindly created a coffee table book of auction prizes, donated from around he world, including a signed painting (£40,000) and the handwritten lyrics of Perfect (£20,000) from Ed Sheeran, and artwork from Damian Hirst (£20,000). 

£220,000 of the cash from the auction has gone into the project, alongside £289,000 for services in kind, including a very generous discount from designers Proscape, a sensory bridge worth thousands from TMJ Joinery, works by Steve Flory Hudson Signs, and additional resources from Guy Nicholls and Tru7 Group. 

Gina Long MBE s joined by Guy Nicholls of Tru7 Group

Gina Long MBE s joined by Guy Nicholls of Tru7 Group who donated money, plant machinery and ground works to help create the sensory play area at Thomas Wolsey Ormiston Academy - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“We cannot wait to see it all come together,” Gina glows, knowing how much joy the legacy will bring to the young people able to use the new facilities for years to come.  

Another benefactor of the auction was St Elizabeth’s Zest – which gained £120,000 for an outreach programme for young adults suffering terminal and life-limiting conditions. And a further £50,000 was donated to Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal, creating a whole programme of non-verbal, sensory sessions. 

“The benefits of this auction will go on and on and on,” says Gina. “As a charity we’ve decided to focus on more capital projects like these. We can help a multitude of youngsters for many years to come, which I think is just fantastic." 

This particular auction was a labour of love, Gina tells me. “For 18 months of lockdown I didn’t see my garden, or most of my family! But it was so worth it. To raise £506,000 in a Covid year was unbelievable.” 

The charity worker, entrepreneur, mentor and ambassador, beams as she talks about her ‘GeeWizz family’ and all the initiatives she’s been involved in over the years, including her first ever auction 12 years ago, which raised more than £200,000. 

“It’s just within me,” she says of her charity work, turning back the clock to when she was just three- years-old, living in Hawaii, and handing out shoes to strangers...and to when she was 13, given £25 by her dad for a 24-hour sponsored swim at St Matthews Baths. 

“I think I was put on the planet to make positive change happen. It doesn’t feel like work to me. I couldn’t ever dream of giving it up. As a mum of two children [Sam and Ali], and five stepchildren, I think we have a duty of care to give back in society, and to leave the world a better place than we found it,” she reflects.

Gina had, she says, an incredible but unconventional childhood. In a plotline that would see the producers of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are rub their hands together, 12 years ago she discovered she had a long-lost family. 

The man Gina believed to be her dad (until the age of 21 when her mother married her stepdad Peter Horsman) was not. “I found I had this whole other Greek American family with help from ancestry.com, having searched for them for 30 years. A sister, Tara, two brothers JayD and Devin, and over 200 relatives.”

Gina’s birth father, Constandino Pappas, had, according to family folklore, a fascinating life before passing away aged 38 – apparently selling diamonds to Elvis Presley and the rest of the Vegas set. 
“It’s interesting to say the least,” Gina muses, adding that she found out her grandmother, who emigrated to America from Greece in 1918 with her grandfather when they were teenagers, were apparently known as renowned fundraisers. There’s definitely a book in the story. One Gina has yet to find time to write. 

Gina was born in Ipswich, living as an infant in Honolulu and San Diego with her mother and her husband (an American serviceman). While that sounds idyllic, it wasn’t without disruption. With several transatlantic flights for her and sister Cherie as they grew up (she has three other siblings, David, Liz and Oliver), landing back in Suffolk aged eight at the family home – the Old Neptune, one of the most historic properties in Ipswich. 

Gina says her time in the house was like living in a museum, although she didn’t really appreciate it at the time. 

“It was a 44-room, beautiful wool merchant’s mansion house, complete with ‘smugglers cellars’. It was our family home for 35 years until mum sold it 18 years ago. It’s just an incredible building – Charles Dickens even stayed there once. We had no idea how amazing it was. I look back now, and my time there was such a formative period of my life.” 

Gina went to school at The Convent of Jesus and Mary, and her classmates rarely wanted to come back to hers after lessons. “The docks were so murky back then... it was a bit of a dire place! But it was also so great. We were opposite Fore Street Swimming Pool. I swam for Ipswich Swimming Club and the Blue Arrows, doing a lot of competing. I made friends I still have today.  

Gina Long, husband Andrew and their blended family

Gina Long, husband Andrew and their blended family - Credit: Lucy Taylor

“And I’m convinced all that training is where my work ethic comes from!” 

Gina’s mum and stepdad would become acclaimed global antiques dealers, acquiring collections for museums in America... selling 16th and 17th century oak and walnut furniture to Downing Street. She and her siblings would be rallied in to wax “old brown furniture” at the dining table for pocket money. 

“We didn’t appreciate how lucky we were. We had a space we called the yacht club, and it kind of became the youth club. My father had a private sports bar and Bobby Robson and all the Ipswich Town players used to go there.” Gina remembers Bobby using a ladder to spy through the upstairs window of the club when he was on the lookout for ‘missing players’ the night before a big match. “They were often up there playing pool and poker with my dad!” 

Bobby and wife Elsie were supporters of Gina’s fundraising when she was a teen. One of her biggest efforts was raising money, aged 13, for a special care baby unit at Ipswich Hospital via a swimathon. 
She would go on, in her later teens, to organise fundraising balls at Copdock on the first Monday of each December – with some of those attending still supporting her events to this day. 

Gina took on a role selling advertising at Radio Orwell, gaining £1million in sales in her first year but, she says, probably being the bane of manager Mike Noye’s (a great friend) life. “If I hit my budget I’d go off and do what I wanted,” she giggles. 

The businesswoman’s first foray into working for herself was launching, aged 28, an company selling advertising signs on roundabouts on a no-win no-fee basis, taking 25%.

After 18 months she’d expanded across the country but a few years later “I got burnt out, which I think can happen to  many entrepreneurs.” 

Having invested well in property in Ipswich, Gina was able to emigrate to America, starting up a multi-million-dollar business selling licensed inflatables such as baseball hats and football helmets (with the NFL, MLB, collegiate and others) at sporting events across the country. Gina was the first UK citizen to be awarded licences for the National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association, alongside 70 collegiate licenses. With her company Unique Event Products, she created and sold what became some of the country's most successful sporting novelty products. 

“We grew very very quickly,” says Gina, adding that her first ever inflatable product was created for a game for AFC Sudbury ahead of the FA Vase finals. 

“It was tough work. You put your heart and soul in when you run your own business, but something has to give. I’m only now learning at 60 that the work-life balance is something I was never very good at. But, equally, I have two amazing entrepreneurial children whom continue to teach me so much every day. They say, having watched my successes and failures has helped them.” 

Back in 1993, Gina helped Chris and Nick Wakefield launch Seckford Golf Club, then launching Marketing Force, building a team, and selling up, with some of the initial people she employed operating and owning the business today. 

Other roles included a spell heading communications at BT, and running her own PR company. 15 years ago, Gina decided to focus all her efforts on her fundraising, campaigning and mentoring, fully supported by her husband Andrew, who she describes as her rock.

Gina's charity endeavours have included raising money for Sarcoma UK (following her daughter’s diagnosis and later remission with the disease), and notching up over £1million for Breakthrough Breast Cancer with mates, after losing her best friend Sally. 

With Andrew, Gina and a dedicated committee created the annual Classic and Sports Cars By The Lake, in 2010, raising £350,000 for St Nicholas Hospice. 

And GeeWizz, one of her babies, was born eight years ago. “It’s been my life 24/7 since.” 

Gina Long with one of the children supported by GeeWizz

Gina Long with one of the children supported by GeeWizz - Credit: Contributed

The plan was, Gina says, to create a charity with transparency. Every single penny donated is traceable. And every penny makes a difference. 

Working with SEND children and young people means a lot to Gina. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many incredible families through GeeWizz. I’ve learnt more from them that I could possibly give back. They are just so positive in the face of their challenges.” 

Money raised goes towards providing equipment, physiotherapy, wheelchairs (which can be £25,000 each)...even fuel to help parents get to and from hospital. Three years ago GeeWizz helped West Suffolk College transform empty rooms at its SEND facility, Minden House, into a living apartment, giving young adults their own space with a kitchen, bedrooms and more. 

“We get very involved. We were in there painting the rooms,” says Gina, adding that charity work doesn’t always have to revolve around money. “We can always give time... and kindness. Just a minute, an hour, a day, can make a positive impact on someone else.” 

For her work in the charity sector, Gina was made an MBE in 2015’s New Year’s Honours List. “I picked up the letter, was sat in my dressing gown planning another auction, opened it and, honestly, you could have knocked me over with a feather. It was so unexpected. And I’m still truly honoured. I believe any work or support given to charity is needed now more than ever.”  

Gina Long with Prince Charles, receiving her MBE

Gina Long with Prince Charles, receiving her MBE - Credit: HM The Queen and British Ceremonial Arts Limited

Outside of her work, Gina has taken on the role as a farmer’s wife for the past 12 years (she knows a lot more about potatoes and onions now!), saying she didn’t appreciate how hard farming was until she settled down with Andrew. “I’ve got a lot of respect for farmers and this ever-changing industry.” 

As a couple, when Andrew can get away from the farm, and Gina from her charity and mentoring work, the Longs love to rally, and have travelled across the world on their adventures, using simple Tulip maps to plot their routes, and complete challenges against the clock. 

“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve seen a lot of places we’d never have visited on a normal holiday. It definitely takes you out of your comfort zone too,” Gina says, remembering filming a drive in Peru on a bit of a hairy road with a 3.5km cliff drop. 

“But we’ve never fallen out, which is kind of a miracle. Even when I give the wrong directions – I'm the navigator. 

“I get in a bit of a state before we go, but when we’re on the road there’s a sense of freedom. And I come back with a greater appreciation of life. When you drive through some African villages, people are rich if they have a black rubbish bag as a roof. We get home and we’ve just got nothing to complain about.” 

As our chat comes to an end, Gina is reflective, thinking about 2022 as being the year she reached a milestone, turning 60, but adding she definitely thinks age is just a number. 

“It’s quite a big number, and different to turning 50. I look at life with a slightly different frame of mind now. A friend of mine said ‘have you done the tape measure test?’ That’s where you work out how long you think you’ll live, while being reasonably fit, active and healthy. I said 85, and they said ‘well, you’ve only got 12ins left on your tape measure’. That resonated with me because in this later part of life you’ve got to live every moment. 

“In the work I do with GeeWizz, I’ve always recognised that anyway. If you’re well, and lucky enough to be healthy, that’s the most precious gift of all.” 

Gina says one of the biggest lessons she’s learnt in her life is to never be a busy fool. “I’ve definitely been guilty of that. Everything we do should have meaning or a purpose. 

“I also believe we should live our true lives. To listen to our inner voices. If we’re honest and truthful enough to do that, to dare to listen to ourselves, it can answer a lot of questions. And it can lead to us being happier than we thought possible. I never underestimate or take for granted the wonderful family and the friendships I have, of which many are long-standing, along with the great support I have received from so many people throughout my life. I’m indebted to them all.” 

For more information on GeeWizz charity, visit geewizzcharity.com