Jonny and schoolkids

What started as a casual chat last year, ended up as ‘Challenge Jonny’: a series of fun and imaginative dares, from dressing up as a frog to going back to school. And Jonny’s doing it all over again for Red Cross Week 2015.

Red Cross Week is a busy time for Jonny Baxter. So far, he’s taken part in a marathon, helped in a pop-up shop and climbed up local Cave Hill for a Red Shoe Walk. And just the other day, he started growing a sponsored moustache – which apparently lost him the respect of most of his peers.

“When I went to the gym and saw my friends, they thought I was making a strange fashion decision,” he says. “Apparently, it was creepy.”

Ready to nail paint

Jonny may have lost a lot of dignity already, but there’s more to come. Not only does he have more challenges to get through, but he will need to confront his biggest fear.

Glitter.

That’s right: Jonny says he has a phobia of the sparkly stuff, much loved by glam-rock tribute bands the world over.

He explains. “You can’t control it and it goes everywhere. But now I’ve been challenged to have my nails painted in the stuff. I’m not feeling good about that.”

Fly high with vertigo

Another day, another Kermit the frog outfit.

Another day, another Kermit the frog outfit.

What brought Jonny to this point, wearing a Seventies moustache and about to splatter his nails in sparkles?

Well, it all started last year, over a cup of tea in the office. During that conversation, Jonny came up with a brave proposition: if someone gave him a challenge for Red Cross Week, he’d have to say yes.

The only rule was that he could issue a challenge back – and they both needed to raise money for the British Red Cross.

Jonny added an extra condition, which sounds fair enough: “I’ll rule out anything with health and safety issues. That wouldn’t be the best humanitarian approach.”

Nevertheless, this didn’t stop him strapping himself to a zip line last year, despite his terrible vertigo. The only way he could cope was to take endless distracting selfies. This also stopped him noticing the looks of horror on passers-by.

“Some of the young people were concerned to see a Red Cross first aider on a zip line. They thought there’d been a major incident!”

Bring people together

Jonny wasn’t going to put himself through such humiliating scenes again – but then he saw the tell-tale envelope on his desk, earlier this year, with the first challenge tucked inside.

However, Jonny assures me he doesn’t mind too much, as he enjoys the camaraderie.

He says: “It’s called ‘Challenge Jonny’, but it’s such a team effort. It’s a chance to get everyone together and raise awareness of the work we do. I’m proud of all the services we offer: anything from a cup of tea and talking to someone, to the really big action when a flooding happens.”

He adds: “It also gets you out into the wider community. You get to talk to people who’ve been helped by the Red Cross. You see the giant impact we have – especially in Northern Ireland, where people think there are a lot of divided communities.

“That’s why the Belfast marathon has been the most emotional and feel-good challenge so far – even though running isn’t my forte. We did it as a team: volunteers, staff and supporters.”

Teachers in red shoes

Repeating the fundraising challenge has also led Jonny to think up some more imaginative ways to involve local schools.

As youth engagement and diversity manager at the Red Cross, Jonny is always trying to get young people interested in humanitarian issues. Making that fun can be the biggest challenge of all.

Last year, Jonny took a school assembly and made the teachers wear red shoes. The children were so enthused, they collected around 99 bags of clothes to sell at Red Cross shops. Each bag was the equivalent of about £10, so they raised a lot of money.

Action hero with sharks

This year, Jonny’s going further. He’s already arranged 300 pupils at Campbell College Junior School into a giant red cross for a photo-shoot.

Today's lesson: how to get 300 schoolchildren to stay still.

Today’s lesson: how to get 300 schoolchildren to stay still.

And he’s yet to receive that school’s big challenge. It sounds like it might be pretty hair-raising: making the zip-line ride seem like a lullaby sway in a rocking basket.

In fact, it could be time to play the health and safety card.

Jonny talks me through it. “Each class is going to come up with a challenge, and the teacher will have the final decision. I have no idea what’s coming.”

He adds: “Last time I heard, one class suggested that I dress up as a giant red squirrel, climb a tree in their grounds, then abseil down and dive into an angry shark-infested pool.

“There’s a lot of creativity there, that’s for sure. Well, we’ll see what happens!”