‘Poppy’s legacy will go on forever’

Mandy Hearle preparing to jump into the River Deben for the first of her 365 fundraising challenges

Mandy Hearle preparing to jump into the River Deben for the first of her 365 fundraising challenges in 2014 - one every day in memory of Poppy Harvey, a Woodbridge teenager who died of anaphylaxis brought on by a severe peanut allergy. - Credit: Archant

Mandy Hearle is nearing the end of an epic fundraising year in memory of a teenager whose life was cut tragically short. Sheena Grant reports.

Mandy Hearle in her newspaper dress

Mandy Hearle in her newspaper dress - Credit: Lucy taylor

It’s hard to take Mandy Hearle entirely seriously when she asserts she’s actually quite shy.

She is, after all, wearing a dress made of newspaper, bright pink boots and stripy pink tights. Her hair is dyed bright pink and her car, parked on the roadside nearby, is painted the same shocking colour.

But she insists it’s true and anyway, Mandy’s choice of clothes and colour aren’t really about her. They are about a young woman called Poppy Harvey, who has changed almost every aspect of Mandy’s life in the past year.

Mandy actually hardly knew Poppy, whose favourite colour was pink, and sadly, she’ll never get the chance to change that now. Poppy, who was just 19, died in June 2010 after suffering a severe allergic reaction to a cake containing traces of peanut.

The aspiring doctor, who was working at a care home in Woodbridge to help fund her medical school studies, had done everything right after the allergic reaction began – she used EpiPens she carried with her to administer a dose of adrenaline and called an ambulance. But she fell into an anaphylactic coma and died within three hours of first falling ill.

Mandy, who also lives in Woodbridge, had become friends with Poppy’s mother, Marcia, after meeting the family through her job at the town’s Deben Pool. She was deeply touched by the tragedy and how Marcia, her husband Steve and Poppy’s sister Sunshine dealt with it.

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“After Poppy died I told Marci I couldn’t imagine how she coped with what had happened,” says Mandy. “She told me as an antidote to sorrow and testament to Poppy she had promised herself to try and do something new every day.”

That bravery amid such grief gave Mandy an idea and on January 1, 2014 she began Mission Possible, a challenge in which she completes a dare a day for a year to raise money for the medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which Poppy had wanted to volunteer for.

“I thought that if Poppy’s parents could have that sort of outlook, being through all they had been through, it was small potatoes for me to take on this challenge,” says Mandy. “I can’t imagine how you cope with losing a daughter. This is about celebrating Poppy.”

It’s day 285 of Mission Possible when I meet Mandy at the EADT offices in Ipswich. Her challenge for the day is to wear a dress made of newspaper - old EADTs and MSF papers – to mark the EADT’s 140th anniversary.

It’s not the best day to be wearing a dress made of paper. The rain is unremitting and it’s windy too. But Mandy is undaunted. She’s done a sort of papier mache effect with the skirt of her outfit to make it stronger and plans to spend the rest of the day wearing it out and about in Woodbridge.

“I grew up with Blue Peter so there’s always a way to make something out of odds and ends and bits of rubbish,” she says.

She’s got a notebook with her, recording the various madcap things she has undertaken in the past 10 months – everything from painting her house pink, dressing as a bat and hanging upside down for five minutes to eating a raw fish liver in Woodbridge town centre.

“A lot of the dares involve eating disgusting things,” she says. “But then, I did go to primary schools and get children to set me some fun, fast and free challenges. That seems to be the sort of thing children like.”

She admits Mission Possible has taken over her life. She’s not only got the challenges to organise but has to update her progress online each night with pictures of her latest antics.

“It’s good that I was never that keen on housework,” she quips.

But she must have everything planned out weeks in advance, right?

“It evolves on the day,” she says. “I get terribly nervous every day. I know that on Christmas Day I’m going to eat Brussels sprouts coated in chocolate and I know that today I’m wearing this newspaper dress but tomorrow is another day and don’t know what I am going to be doing at the moment. The project has a life of its own.”

Some things have gone better than others but through it all, Mandy says it is almost as though Poppy has been present, working a little magic in the background at crucial times.

“Marcia calls it Poppy Power and there is no doubt about it – Poppy is sprinkling her magic,” she says. “The number of times something incredible has happened while we’ve been doing this is amazing. Now we just say: ‘That must be Poppy’.

“On Valentine’s Day, for instance, I was the Queen of Hearts and had to give a certain number of people a peck on the cheek. To keep track of the numbers I gave everyone I kissed a cloakroom ticket. It was a really windy day and one of the tickets blew away. I was chasing it up the road when a passerby put their foot on it to stop it. I looked up and it was Sunshine. What are the chances of that happening? It’s like Poppy’s looking down and when we need a bit of help she just twitches her nose, like on the Bewitched TV programme years ago. We do need a bit of magic sometimes.”

Through Mission Possible Mandy has got a sense of the sort of person Poppy was and the effect she had on others during her all-too brief life.

“Poppy has left the most incredible legacy,” she says. “She really was somebody special – she lit up a room with her enormous smile. Everyone just adored her.”

And while Mission Possible is an altruistic challenge, Mandy admits it came at the right time in her life too.

“I had applied to join the fire service as a retained fire fighter but it all fell through because my hearing isn’t up to scratch – I have hearing aids,” she says. “I had reached the time of life where I wanted to give something back and do something for others. This seemed the perfect thing and MSF do such good work. They are first in and last out when there is a crisis and they don’t spend money on things that don’t matter. Their work has really come to the forefront in the last few months as they’ve been on the frontline in Gaza and fighting Ebola in west Africa.”

Mandy’s two children are grown up now – one is away travelling – and she was in a position where she could take on something this big.

“I suppose that now we are into October we are reaching the last push,” she says. “It’s been just amazing and people’s reaction has left me humbled. Because I am doing something every day each individual thing has a spark of magic. It is like the world has turned into a theatre and each day is a mini play. I am just lucky to be a part of it really.

“The idea with everything I do is not to spend money. It has to be free and easy to do. There were two skips in my road for a while and that was brilliant for finding things to use in the challenges – like having my own prop heaven.”

So far, Mandy and her small band of helpers, who include Poppy’s mum Marcia and a neighbour, have raised around £7,000. She’s hoping an auction on November 26 to sell 50 donated things for at least £20 each will boost that figure. Among the lots going under the hammer will be her pink car, Mavis, a guitar lesson with Keane’s Jesse Quin and a meet and greet with Charlie Simpson, of Busted fame. The biggest money spinner of the year so far has been a prank where she was ‘arrested’ and thrown into cells on Woodbridge’s Market Hill. People were asked to give donations to free her – or keep her locked up.

Other highlights have included being voted joint carnival queen, sleeping outside for a night – which she did on a camp bed with a standard lamp as a prop – posing as a mannequin in a shop window, being a binman for a day (which she loved), riding a horse over a jump side saddle, lying in bed in a shop window and, most recently, sending a message in a bottle from Felixstowe that was found six days later by a little boy in Holland.

“It’s been an amazing thing to be part of. Everyone has been so lovely but I’ve become so well known around Woodbridge now that it is really difficult to get anyone to take much notice of me,” she says.

Of course, life will resume some sort of normality in January but Mandy hopes it won’t be the end of the fundraising. “My stock answer when anyone asks me what I will do when it’s all finished is that I will go to bed and not get up until March,” she says. “And I will probably sleep for a good while but next year it would be good to build on what we’ve created this year. MSF is such a worthy cause.

“I don’t want there to be a clear ending to this and I love the fact that it has already grown so much. Anyone can now pick up the mantle to raise awareness about allergic reactions and raise money for MSF.

“Mission Possible ends on New Year’s Eve but Poppy’s legacy will go on forever.”

To make a donation visit justgiving.com/poppysmissionpossible2014 or to donate something for November’s fundraising auction go to www.facebook.com/missionpossible2014.