Throughout my life, I’ve met some amazing women who achieve equally amazing things. Sadly not everyone gets to hear about them. On International Women’s Day I wanted to share Victoria’s story. Quite simply put, she is amazing with a heart of gold and an infectious enthusiasm for life and what she does. She was awarded a very deserving MBE in 2019. Enjoy and please share I’d love her story to reach far and wide.
Today I would live you to meet an incredible lady, Victoria Garcia MBE, whom I first met whilst I worked at Arriva. You may or may not have heard of her, but she has changed the lives of so many for the better with her passion and warmth. At the time, we were working as a cross-business team with the Department for Transport (DFT) , on disability and inclusion on bus in the UK. To to be honest, Victoria’s dedication to delivering a fully inclusive service and achievements in doing so, even at that time, were awe-inspiring. She is one fantastic lady, who has triumphed against some big personal challenges and used all of that to help others.
I thought it would be great to tell the story of the woman behind the work. It is my privilege that she allowed me to do this. Here’s her story; I hope I do her justice.
The early days
Originally born in Newcastle, Victoria moved down South as a child, living in Wales along the way. She then moved to Brighton aged 11, where her introduction to bus started when her dad started working at Southdown Bus, which went on to be Brighton & Hove Buses.
Mum to three wonderful children and happily single for 9 years (I do love how she says this, someone so happy in her own space); Victoria has a love for History, which she shares with her youngest son.
When I met Victoria it was obvious she was a people-person, and also a great listener, as she says, ‘Everyone has something to say and something to share. I love learning about people and hearing their stories. I have learnt so many wonderful things from other people. People seem to tell me things too.’ Her words are not surprising in the least, with Victoria, there are no agendas. She is quite simply an open and gentle soul.
Suddenly I was able to go out on my own (as previously I always had to have someone with me if I did venture out). The world was suddenly a very scary place.
What I had no idea about when I met Victoria was that from birth, she has some hereditary conditions that include Lupus, Sjogren’s, Antiphospholipid Syndrome, Reynaud’s syndrome, and a very rare sudden death syndrome called Brugada syndrome (as she said, she doesn’t do things by half!). This means she has an implanted defibrillator (ICD) for her Brugada syndrome.
16 years ago, whilst living and working in Spain, this implanted defibrillator fired up as she was walking up some marble stairs, and she fell backwards down the stairs and sustained a head injury which resulted in being unable to leave the house for 5 years.
This was life changing. During this time, Victoria had to cope with multiple seizures a day and 2-3 blackouts. Unable to work or look after herself, she almost gave up hope of being independent again. A difficult time but she never gave up hope.
Then, as if by some miracle, she woke up one day and went an entire day without a seizure. One doctor described it as ‘her brain obviously just needing time to heal’. It was a light at the end of a tunnel and whilst Victoria admitted she still got seizures, they were a lot less frequent, meaning she was then able to start working again.
This was the scariest time of my life. Victoria then went on to explain, ‘Suddenly I was able to go out on my own (as previously I always had to have someone with me if I did venture out). The world was suddenly a very scary place. Just going over the road on my own to buy a pint of milk for the first time was scary. So was the first time travelling on a bus, a train—basically doing anything on my own. I felt that fear repeated many times. I now had this newfound understanding of the anxiety felt by so many people travelling by bus. Even now when I am going somewhere new, it’s important I do a ‘practice run’ if I can.’
Rather than hiding, Victoria took the challenge head-on and decided to help others like her. In fact, she got her first taste of bus world by accident, working firstly for her father and now for the lovely Martin Harris. In 2010 she started in the customer service department of Brighton and Hove Bus as a customer advisor answering calls and emails. In 2012 she was promoted to head of customer services.
‘I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it as I had changed so much but I found myself doing really well and was particularity interested in working on complaints that involved accessible travel.’
When Martin Harris joined as the new MD, he created a new role for her, and she moved to start working as the customer liaison officer. This then became Accessibility and Communities Manager—her real calling and she is perfect for the role. This shift meant that Victoria could now focus her time solely on the more complicated and time-consuming complaints, which turned out to generally be about accessibility.
‘By Martin creating a role that was able to focus extra time, it meant that this enabled me to meet with groups and people that we just didn’t have time to do (sic) before. This opened us up to huge amounts of information and, of course, learning so many new things. Within months the contact list grew exponentially and community groups, who previously didn’t link with us, were now welcoming us in.’
This has enabled Victoria to receive feedback and views from many groups across the entire network. Knowing Victoria as I do, I know that she is a natural when it comes to this: easy-going and honest, with a real desire to make a difference. I can see why they were so keen and open.
The feedback has helped Victoria and her team improve in areas where they weren’t previously getting things right and also allowing them to plan more for the future. This meant she was able to raise the profile of accessibility on bus…no mean feat!
‘Many people in the business saw my role as a ‘fluffy role’ that was all about ticking boxes. One of the things that Martin and I are most proud of is that now these same people don’t see it as a ‘fluffy role’, but something that is integral to the very core of the business and has allowed us to grow and become one of the most accessible bus companies in the UK
A woman of many achievements
So now skip forward to 2019: she has ensured that across the entire business, things are changing.
All staff receive disability awareness training, but not just frontline staff—all staff. Most importantly, this is at director-level, as they are the ones signing the cheques. If they ‘get it’, then change is more likely to happen quicker and easier. This includes all staff undertaking the MyGuide training that guide dogs have, in partnership with Brighton and Hove, specially adapted for bus travel. It’s now included in the Government ITS (Inclusive Transport Strategy).
But not being one to sit on her laurels and soak up the success so far, Victoria said:
‘Following all the work we have undertaken, we have got better but we have a long way to go. We can’t now put our feet up and think, ‘Hey, we got this’ as we haven’t. We may be among the best but that doesn’t mean that we are the best that we can be. The real experts are our customers and the charities and disability groups who guide us. It’s absolutely essential that we continue to grow and make things better. ‘
What do you love about your work?
When I asked Victoria, ‘What do you love about your work?’, her answer…:
I absolutely love working with people. Working with all the groups and individuals too. Having the opportunity to work for an amazing MD who has been very patient and understanding when I have come back with sometimes ‘out there’ ideas and he has supported them. These ‘out there’ ideas have become normal every day policy that actually should have been implemented before. I am so proud to be involved in implementing change. How cool is that! Especially when a few years ago I didn’t even think I would work again. Now I am helping make buses more accessible for other people.
I think we all get frustrated at work for different reasons, and Victoria has found, as it is for a lot of us, taking people on that change journey is not always easy—and she has had to challenge resistance.
‘Sometimes it is hard to make change as not everyone ‘gets it’. For example, the specs on buses are out of date and the specifications for a wheelchair were added 20 years ago. This means that in general bus design is quite tight as the sizes don’t match modern present day wheelchairs. So we are having to keep pushing for this.
If we want people to give up their cars and travel by bus there needs to be a way of attracting people to travel
Accessibility is commercially viable. It affects 100% of all customers, not just the 1 in 5 disabled people. At some point, everyone will have an accessibility requirement. Whether they are disabled, pregnant, getting older, injure themselves (broken bones or other injuries), or taking children on board with buggies. Carrying the weekly shop—how do they hold on and where do they put their shopping?
Her biggest frustration is some people thinking that accessibility is a ‘tick box’ exercise—not because it’s actually the right thing to do. Then not understanding that accessible travel is actually beneficial for all. Even now, they are designing and buying new buses that aren’t accessible for all—in 15 years these buses will still be in use in a village somewhere. It is essential that buses are as accessible as they possibly can be.
Victoria Garcia MBE
So what we haven’t mentioned is this year Victoria was honoured to receive an MBE. I asked her how she felt when she found out. Totally in character, her answer was:
Shocked, humbled, excited. Couldn’t understand why me (sic). Really, really proud. Wishing that my mum was here, as she passed away (with the same illnesses as I have) before knowing that I had gone on to do well. I had only just started back at work when she died. The day itself was a perfect day too in every way. Everyone was wonderful—HRH, the staff at Buckingham Palace, all the people receiving awards. As I said earlier, I love meeting and speaking with people. Heard some amazing stories including the gent, James Roffey MBE, who helped evacuees in WW2. What an honour it was to meet and speak with him.
So what’s next for Victoria?
To carry on making services more accessible for all. Presently she is working on assistance cards at the DFT and will continue with this project. In addition Victoria has a list that makes me feel in awe just looking at but if anyone can do it I’m sure this Lady will lead the way.
In the long term, she would very much like to keep working towards ensuring accessible bus design so buses are easily available to as many people as possible, as they are a lifeline for work, health and social. It’s absolutely essential that people continue to work towards this goal. If operators demand more accessible buses, the manufacturers will ensure that they invest more in their design. This helps to increase passenger numbers and decreases boarding and alighting times, which in turn increase profits and the commercial viability.
With the purple pound worth an estimated £247 billion a year, who wouldn’t want to invest in accessible travel nowadays?