Big Ian Donaghy: Meet the York teacher, dementia care stalwart and singer who just wants to help

Big Ian Donaghy always has an inspirational quote on the tip of his tongue.

“You'd be amazed how much luckier you get, the more people you help in this world,” is one example of the many mantras he’s acquired during a life in teaching, dementia care and much more besides (including his side hustle as a singer).

Born in Durham, 6ft 2in Ian – hence the nickname – found a calling connecting to people in need of help.

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After a brief stint as a bouncer, the son of well-known local Charlie Donaghy left his home of Tow Law for St John’s College in York aged 18, but got “kicked out for playing in rock bands, doing comedy nights and not focusing on my studies”, and from there went to Beckett’s Park, part of what was Leeds Metropolitan University.

Big Ian Donaghy.Big Ian Donaghy.
Big Ian Donaghy.

After studying, he initially struggled to find work but was taken on by the Fulford Cross in York, where he taught pupils with special educational needs.

“Nobody would employ me because I looked like trouble. I turned up and invariably you’re interviewed in a cupboard, in a really small office, basically I walked in there and I filled the door,” says Ian, who used to be 28 stone but has since lost 12.

“Number one haircut, north-east accent, I looked like bother. And the thing is I wasn’t, but there’s not many people who turn up in black suits that are the size of a house and sometimes they couldn’t see past that.

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“If they’d have looked into my eyes, like the kids did, they’d have seen me.”

Big Ian with his book A Pocketful of Kindness.Big Ian with his book A Pocketful of Kindness.
Big Ian with his book A Pocketful of Kindness.

He adds: “Fulford Cross brought me in for a morning and I left seven years later, after various promotions. The kids took to me straight away. They didn’t see the giant that walked in there, they just saw me. And they taught me more about teaching, more about communication, more about learning than I ever taught them.”

After that, he was headhunted by the Home Office to work at sites such as Lowfield School in York as a positive role model, setting up an inclusion unit to prevent pupils from being permanently excluded and served in a number of roles until 2006.

“There was a bit of a siege mentality. It was me and those kids versus the rest of the world. And we all felt it. And we thought you know what, let’s do this. Let’s prove everybody wrong.”

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“It was beautiful,” he says – but also hard work. “I think in one school we went from something like 15 permanent exclusions to zero in a year. And that was the same year my hair went from brown to Just For Men brown.”

Big Ian on presenting duties. Picture: Karen Boyes.Big Ian on presenting duties. Picture: Karen Boyes.
Big Ian on presenting duties. Picture: Karen Boyes.

He went to The Mount School, an independent girls school in York, developing bespoke learning methods for A-level students.

Later, he was speaking at a conference about the need for a more flexible approach to education when an audience member from a background in care asked if he had ever tried applying it to dementia.

It was soon after his mother, Alice, died in 2009.

“I just felt it was like my mum leaving a present,” says Ian, 53. “Seriously, whenever I’ve needed help, it’s appeared. But whenever anybody else around me needs help, I’ll help them. I honestly believe that you reap what you sow. If you are good with people, you will never have an empty corner.”

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He was director of training for Park Lane Healthcare in Hull between October 2009 and November 2012, then continued on a freelance basis with such work, alongside keynote speaking and fundraising. A big part of his work now is in dementia care.

He says: “I spend all my time talking to people living with dementia to find out what’s going on behind those eyes, and to be like a dementia detective and find out the person and cut through the fog and find the things that made people smile.”

Big Ian also makes short films to that effect, showing the lives of people experiencing the condition as well as families and carers – part of his campaign under the banner of ‘Dementia is a team game’.

Ian has authored books including Dear Dementia: The Laughter and the Tears – one which is available for doctors to prescribe – The Missing Peace, A Pocketful of Kindness and, most recently, Never Stop Drawing.

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“This lad who sees the world differently, eventually changes the way others see themselves in this book,” says Ian, of the latter story.

There is an illustrated edition with pictures by Alfie Joey, but there’s another ‘draw-it-yourself’ version for readers to come up with their own images.

He also founded Xmas Presence, a project providing older people who find themselves alone at Christmas with transport, a roast dinner, entertainment, presents and company.

Recently, he has been involved with the launch of the Yorkshire Care Alliance, a new charity that aims to support those working in the sector, delivering a talk to “show people how much they matter in showing others how much they matter”.

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Then there is A Night To Remember, an inclusive evening of music to raise dementia awareness and funds for important associated causes, as well as St Leonard’s Hospice, which has become a staple of York’s events calendar.

At home, Ian has been married to wife, Em, for 22 years and is father to Annie, 20, and Billy, 17. While he was raised in the north-east, York, he says “has given me a beautiful life”.

And not forgetting, he fronts the party covers band Huge.

“I meet wonderful people every day who change people’s lives. Whether it’s in care, in education, supported living. Whatever it’s in, I meet amazing people. They invite me into their lives.

“The joke is, they think I’m some sort of inspirational speaker and I always leave more inspired. I always leave with my heart absolutely brimming.”

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