June Buckingham was just nine years old when she lost both of her grandmothers in quick succession, before joining HOLG at a bereavement weekend to support her through her grief.
Now 17, the inspirational teen, who also has autism, has set up her own signing choir and is holding a special charity concert to raise money so that we can help more young people like her. We caught up with June’s mum, Debbie, to hear more about her story:
“It was back in 2013 when Pauline, my mother-in-law, died suddenly. She had looked after June from the ages of nine months to four years so it hit her really hard. She used to be a really good eater; she’d sit with Nanny Pauline and eat huge dinners, and adventurous things like asparagus tips but she stopped eating anything but really bland food.
“Then just a few months later, my mum died of lung cancer. I didn’t visit my mum a lot, but we were very close. I took June to see her in her last few months to try to give her a bit of understanding that she was going to die. Because her other nanny hadn’t long died, she said to my mum, “When are you going to die, Nanny Lilly?” That really upset my mum, so I didn’t take her back after that and I really regret it; that was in the August and she died in November. I didn’t take her to the funeral either or tell her when it was; she’d been so devastated by her other grandmother’s funeral, I thought it was the best thing to do but I don’t know if it was right or wrong.
“Following their deaths, June just couldn’t cope with anything. She’d never had many friends and was always isolated; I thought that was just how she was, but looking back, it could’ve been an autistic trait – she was only diagnosed this year.
“She had some counselling but she didn’t find it very helpful. But then in 2014 we were referred for a HOLG weekend and it had such a massive impact on June. She still talks about it now and has kept the memory jars and dream catcher she made. She still has days now, where she’ll have a really good cry and I’ll tell her to remember what HOLG taught her. She’ll draw a picture or do something creative and it helps her to express her grief in that moment.
“We met Caroline Ford, the CEO of HOLG at the bereavement weekend and we’ve been friends ever since. We’ve attended things like the curry nights and we try to support in any way we can.
“June went through a difficult time in her early teens. She was self-harming and depressed and we didn’t know what was wrong with her. We didn’t know then that she was autistic and we later found out that she had some issues with people online that impacted her. All of this caused her to have severe anxiety and she also developed Tourette’s. Then one day, just before her 14th birthday, she came downstairs and said she’d learnt the alphabet in sign language. My husband and I didn’t think much beyond, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ but suddenly, it all took off. She went on to discover song signing and before we knew it, she had her Level 3 in British Sign Language.
“I can’t say what inspired her or influenced her to do it; it was just something she wanted to do. Last year, when she was just 16, she announced she wanted to start a signing choir so she could teach other people to sign. Despite her anxiety, she was brave enough to approach Rainham Social Club to ask if she could use their hall and because she was doing something for the community, they gave it to her for free.
“June’s first session with her choir, ‘See My Voice’, was on 17th January 2022. She’s got 35 members; the youngest is six, the oldest is 70. A couple of members are hearing-impaired but the rest can hear. One lady has tinnitus, another lost their hearing through meningitis and one wears hearing aids and wants her children to learn how to sign as she loses her hearing. They’re such an amazing group. Some have anxiety, some have autism, but they come alive when they perform. What June does is she gets a song, breaks it down bit by bit, verse by verse and she teaches them to sign those words along to the music. I think her record is she’s taught a song in 15 mins. Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell took them just half an hour!”
The event for HOLG is being held at Rainham Social Club on 15th October, from 7-11pm. There’s also a raffle with lots of prizes donated from local shops and businesses, including a cream tea for two and a fish and chip supper. Money raised will be split between HOLG and One Big Family Helping the Homeless.
“June’s achieved so much through her signing. She’s the official signer for Square Peg, a theatre group for people with learning disabilities and autism. We also attended Kent Music Festival this year and she saw some deaf people in the queue so she jumped in to help them understand. The first act saw what she was doing and invited her on stage to sign along to the Katy Perry song she was performing. She ended up staying on for the second and third acts, signing along to Pink and Adele songs.
“She also raised £130 for My Shining Star Children’s Cancer charity by offering sponsored songs; people requested a song, paid a pound, she would video herself signing it and dedicate to them. A friend gave her £50 for one song. The choir also sponsors two hearing puppies. She’s also been invited to set up a branch of the choir at Mid Kent College, where she studies art and graphic design.
“June’s just been nominated for two awards: a Rainham community Award on 8th October and a Medway Youth Award, which takes place on 9th November.
“HOLG has been such a big, positive influence on her life and helps so many others; we’ve recently discovered that two of the youngest choir members also attended a HOLG weekend. June has offered to be signer at their weekends for any hearing-impaired children; it’s all about giving back for her.”
The See My Voice choir concert in aid of HOLG takes place on 15th October at Rainham Social Club, from 7pm-11pm. The choir will perform a mix of pop and novelty songs, including Pink, Neil Diamond, Elvis and the Chicken Fried song!
Tickets are £3. There will be a bar on the night and a raffle with lots of fantastic prizes donated by local businesses.
For tickets, please contact Debbie on 07383 915871.