Ever since a health crisis left her close to death 13 years ago, Mel Shand has not wasted a moment bringing positivity to the lives of others.
An accomplished artist and playwright, Mrs Shand holds an instrumental role in her community of Finzean, plus the nearby towns Birse, Ballogie and Strachan.
And during the pandemic she stepped up even further to bring people together and help those in need.
The 56-year-old has now been awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in recognition of her efforts.
Mrs Shand said: “It struck me very quickly how isolating the pandemic could be when it first started.
“One of the best things about living in a community like Finzean is that we’re very lucky because people do look out for each other.
“We didn’t know how this thing was going to unfold, but I immediately felt I needed to reach out to people.”
Mrs Shand set up the NeedaNeighbour chat group, initially with just a few locals.
Eventually it grew to 90 members, with many willing to collect shopping and prescriptions or just provide physically-distanced social contact for others.
Many also went above and beyond to brighten the days of others – with Mrs Shand calling one woman, who dropped off a resident’s medication with a fresh bunch of daffodils, particularly “inspiring”.
Through the group, she heard about efforts to sew scrubs for NHS workers, and took out her needle and thread to join the cause.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” she added.
“There was this huge flurry of activity and I enjoyed working with people and thinking collaboratively.”
As the group expanded, Mrs Shand recruited non-sewers who were able to cut the material to size using special plywood templates crafted by a local carpenter.
They were also able to make face coverings and bags from the leftover material.
When not sewing or organising deliveries for neighbours, Mrs Shand took the time to create a series of paintings for medical staff.
Sending a ‘virtual hug’
As part of the nationwide Portraits For NHS Heroes initiative, she created masterpieces featuring a consultant in Gateshead, a Grantown paramedic and a London anaesthetist, then presented them as gifts to the subjects.
Reflecting back to the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, she said: “At first I was thinking ‘I have to do this, this and this’.
“I got into a bit of a panic and I had to take a step back and calm down, so I could appreciate what was happening.
“Covid gave me some space and time and an opportunity to send out a virtual hug to the people I care about, just by keeping in touch with them and trying to be vigilant.”
Looking for opportunities to be kind
In 2007, Mrs Shand was left requiring an urgent operation and spent time in intensive care following a sudden bout of peritonitis – inflammation which can damage internal organs.
Since then she has written and organised a number of community plays, encouraging people from all walks of life to use their skills and improve their confidence.
She is also a director of the River Dee Trust and, through North East Arts Touring, negotiates with theatre companies to include smaller towns in Aberdeenshire when they bring a production to the region.
Mrs Shand said: “Before Christmas someone said to me ‘I don’t know how you pack so much in’.
“And I said back: ‘I don’t know why you wouldn’t’.
“You need to really appreciate what you have and see opportunities to be kind or thoughtful or generous.
“It’s much more life-affirming than holding on to bitterness or sadness or negativity.
“That health crisis really did turn my life around and encouraged me not to waste any time.
“So to get a BEM, I really do feel humbled.”