AN INSPIRATIONAL activist who has helped to give young people a voice and shine the spotlight on “invisible” illnesses told of her shock on receiving a Diana Award.
Toni Paxford (20) said she was so taken aback when a presentation party turned up at her leaving do from Rotherham Youth Cabinet that she could hardly find the words to make a thank-you speech.
But she pledged to string a few words together when she joins other award winners in London on Monday for a grand celebration of community champions from around the country.
“I was shocked,” admitted Toni, of Kimberworth. “I think my face said it all when everyone walked in!
“It’s amazing to get recognised, no matter what the award is, but the fact that it’s a Diana Award is such an honour.”
Toni is leaving the Youth Cabinet after seven years in which she has campaigned on the regional and national stage on issues as diverse as body image, mental health and public transport costs for young people.
Now studying youth and community work at university, she said she planned to wear the Diana Award pin badges she had been presented with out and about so other people could ask about them and find out how to nominate someone for the prize.
As a 14-year-old, Toni joined the Votes at 16 campaign to call for the voting age to be lowered, insisting: “People sometimes forget that young people can contribute just as much as, or sometimes more than some adults.”
She spoke out last year after the cabinet committed in its manifesto to promoting positive body image, saying: “It is a huge issue for our generation, especially with the rise of social media.
“We need young people to feel proud of who they are, whatever shape, size or colour they are.”
Earlier this year, Toni scooped the regional diversity award at the Youth Voice Star Awards for her work on Paige’s Project, which offers “safe spaces” for children with eating disorders, mental health difficulties and invisible, chronic illnesses.
She said the group’s profile was growing all the time and more young people were getting in touch about it.
And last month, Toni was revealed as the youngest trustee for Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, with the task of bringing the views and interests of young people to the board.
She said this week: “There has been something we’ve done every year that I’ve been glad I did. Perhaps the thing I’m proudest of is the conferences we’ve done. The first focused on mental health and I was asked to speak, which was really nice.”
Toni was presented with her prestigious accolade by Tessy Ojo, chief executive of The Diana Award, The Mayor and Mayoress of Rotherham, Cllrs Jenny Andrews and Jeanette Mallinder, and Zak Patel, chief executive of award sponsors Pugata.
Tessy said: “Toni is a remarkable young woman and has achieved so much. It was a pleasure to present her with the Diana Award, which is so well deserved.”