Young person from Northamptonshire shares their DofE story with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh

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Zoe Johnson from Towcester, in Northamptonshire, met His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, at a Buckingham Palace celebration recognising her Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award achievement.

Hosted by The Duke as Patron of the DofE charity, Zoe, 22, joined thousands of young people and their loved ones from across the UK for a festival-style celebration at Buckingham Palace Garden last week - Monday 13 May.

The celebration was one of four taking place over two days at the Palace, recognising over 8,000 young people who have shown extraordinary perseverance, creativity and resilience to complete their Gold DofE in schools, community organisations, youth groups and workplaces, all over the UK.

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The celebration saw HRH The Duke of Edinburgh – who received his own Gold Award from his father Prince Philip at nearby St James’s Palace in 1986 – congratulate attendees in a speech from the Palace’s West Terrace.

Zoe Johnson with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, alongside Ellis Anthony Willis & Caitlin Haf JonesZoe Johnson with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, alongside Ellis Anthony Willis & Caitlin Haf Jones
Zoe Johnson with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, alongside Ellis Anthony Willis & Caitlin Haf Jones

Zoe, who is also a former Duke of Edinburgh Youth Ambassador, did her DofE with Akeley Wood School, in Buckinghamshire, and was one of just a handful of people to personally speak to The Duke following his speech.

After the event, Zoe, who met The Duke alongside current Cymru Youth Ambassadors Ellis Anthony Willis and Caitlin Haf Jones, said: “It was wonderful to meet The Duke. He was kind, and gave me his full attention while we spoke, despite the long line of others behind us who also waited to meet him.”

Zoe has overcome a lot of challenges throughout her DofE journey. It has taken her nine years to achieve all three levels of her Awards due to the impact of multiple chronic illnesses on her health.

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A few years before starting Bronze, a viral infection changed Zoe’s life overnight, leaving her mostly housebound. Gradually her condition became more severe, and she describes DofE as the only thing she was able to do besides schoolwork.

Zoe was one of the first participants to take part in the virtual expedition pilot and through her Volunteering section raised around £6,000 for charities working to support young people with chronic illnesses. In 2022, Zoe was also a UK Youth Ambassador, representing the DofE at a variety of online events.

Zoe said: “The DofE’s celebration of the virtual expedition that I took part in gives me hope for an even more accessible Award in the near future. I look forward to seeing what they do with the virtual expedition next.”

Another highlight of the day for Zoe was the opportunity to meet the rest of her virtual expedition team. She said: “We've been working together online for the past two years, and it was so lovely to finally be able to meet in person in such a beautiful place. It was the perfect end to my journey with the Award which began nine years ago.”

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Chef, television presenter and Gold DofE Award holder Matt Tebbutt – whose son, Henry, also collected his Gold Award on Monday - delivered an inspiring speech. He said: “My own DofE journey taught me to embrace the bumps along the road, learn from them, and see where life takes you. I used to dread public speaking. At 26, I couldn't even manage to give a best man's speech – a regret I still carry with me. But here I am today, speaking to all of you and millions more every Saturday on television. It shows that, with enthusiasm and a willingness to try, anything is possible.

“The Duke of Edinburgh's Award is not just an impressive badge of honour - it represents integrity, perseverance, a spirit of adventure, and a desire to give something back. These experiences ultimately make you more interesting and well-rounded human beings. Your journey is just beginning, and I have no doubt that each of you will do extraordinary things.”

Buckingham Palace Garden had been transformed into a festival-style celebration for young people and their loved ones, with giant deckchairs, bunting and garden games and activities. Attendees had the chance to hear from famous DofE Award holders and other inspiring speakers, with Actor Kiell Smith-Bynoe, animator and co-founder of Academy Award-winning Aardman studios Peter Lord CBE, Jodie Ounsley – also known as Fury from Gladiators – television presenter Karthi Gnanasegaram, and marathon runner Sally Orange MBE speaking at stages throughout the garden.

A Gold DofE programme is a non-competitive personal challenge, open to all young people, which takes a minimum of 12 months to complete. Young people build their own programmes with activities in five sections – Physical, Skills, Volunteering, a five-day Residential and a four-day Expedition. 

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Ruth Marvel, CEO of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, said: "The young people here today have achieved something exceptional, and it is wonderful to see them celebrating together, sharing their experiences and hearing their aspirations for the future. DofE is all about proving to yourself just what you are capable of, and the young people here today have showed the world that their potential is limitless. I can’t wait to see what they go on to do next.

“As a charity, we’re working hard to give as many young people as possible the chance to have a DofE experience and we're delighted to announce that last year 330,948 young people started a DofE Award - another record-breaking year. This growth in participation shows just how much appetite there is amongst young people for enrichment and development opportunities beyond formal education and, together with our partners, we are determined to keep extending our reach until every young person has access to these types of life-changing experiences."

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award charity recently announced record-breaking annual statistics, with 545,910 young people actively taking part in 2023/24, over 330,984 young people starting their Award – and participants contributing an astonishing 4.7 million hours of Volunteering, equivalent to over £24 million in paid working hours.

As young people navigate the after-effects of the pandemic, along with a mental health and cost-of-living crisis, access to opportunities for personal development beyond the classroom, like the DofE, are vital to help them have fun, discover new talents and passions, build their resilience and self-belief and give them skills employers value – like teamwork, problem-solving and leadership.