The founder of a group that aims to tackle mental health issues through the simple therapy of dog-walking has spoken of his joy after it was granted charity status.
Toby McKillop, from Ellon, created Pawpalz last year as a way of helping men struggling with their mental health to connect with others in a friendly, non-intimidating way.
The idea to centre the group around walks with dogs came after Toby adopted his Balkan miniature Pinscher-cross Ebby during a particularly difficult time in his life, and felt his wellbeing massively improve.
There are currently 10 men in the group, who regularly meet up alongside their four-legged friends to discuss how they are feeling and support each other.
The success of the original Pawpalz has led to the development of a women’s group – now even larger than the men’s, with 12 members – and plans are in place to broaden the reach beyond Ellon by training people to offer support in their own area.
‘Overwhelming’ to be granted charity status
But it has taken no small effort to bring those plans to life.
Mr McKillop said: “Over the last year, a few of us have been working on this business plan and application for the charity status, because we had to have that to make the business plan work.
“It was a chore, a year of the business plan and the charity application. The hardest thing I think I’ve ever been involved in.
“But when we got the email from the folk from OSCR saying you’ve been awarded your charitable status, and we wish you all the best, oh my god – I couldn’t stop greeting.
“Had that on Friday, and Saturday and Sunday was just a mess. Last week it was like I wasn’t even in my own body, it was such a relief. Overwhelming.”
Pawpalz is now linked with the Scottish Recovery Network, and it is hoped that at least four people can access the network’s four-month training course from September to December this year.
Over the next six months, Mr McKillop is planning to reach out to other communities, and arrange coffee mornings in an effort to lay the foundation for more groups.
It all leads towards what is likely to be a very significant 2022 for Pawpalz.
It even now has its own logo featuring Ebby herself, designed by Red Rebel Creative and based on the winning drawing from a schools competition last year.
Mr McKillop’s ambitions for the future even stretch beyond the north-east. He said: “If we can show this is working locally, round about the north-east, then it’ll go nationwide after that.”
Encouraging people to get involved, he added: “What we do with PawPalz is designed to be easy to reach out to – you don’t have to walk through doors, in a room with bright lights like a community centre or church hall.
“I know that puts a lot of folk off, cause it’s all about the prejudice and stigma round about going to a mental health support group.
“Whereas, what we do is a walk with the dogs. You’re turning up for a walk with the dogs, so all that fear and uncertainty and prejudice just goes away.”