Polly on her Donkathon

Everybody Can Do Something

From flying solo around the world, to a Donkathon, to taking in Ukrainian refugees, Polly Vacher is a firm believer that ‘everybody can do something’.

CONNECTED sat down with Reading graduate and shortlisted Celebration of Volunteering nominee, Polly, to find out more about her incredible adventures and how she turns everything into an opportunity to help others – whether that’s through fundraising, donating, or providing a home for people in need.

Watch our video to hear from Polly herself:

Flying high

Polly entered the history books in 2001 after completing a solo eastbound circumnavigation of the world, and in 2004 became the first woman to fly solo over the Polar Regions, flying over the North Pole, Antarctica and all seven continents.

Polly with a globe
Photo credit: John Dunbar

Polly said: “I’ve always wanted to learn to fly. I remember standing on a chair as a child with my arms out thinking ‘why can’t I fly like a bird?’. But it wasn’t until my 50s, with my children grown up, that my husband and I eventually learnt to fly together. I also got hooked on skydiving and now have 245 skydives in my logbook.”

As well as an incredible experience for Polly herself, her flights also did a lot of good – raising nearly half a million pounds for the Flying Scholarships for Disabled People charity.

Polly said: “One of my mottos is that you can’t just take, you have to give back as well. So I asked people to donate to put their name on my aircraft wing, raising money for a charity that gives scholarships to people with physical disabilities. Using adapted aircrafts, these scholarships help show individuals what they can still achieve with their disability.

“It’s so wonderful that these flights could become a platform for good, not just raising money but also awareness for the charity.

“Since then similar projects have been launched in Australia and America so that is a really exciting outcome.”

In recognition of Polly’s incredible efforts she was awarded an MBE for services to charity in 2002.

She said: “It’s a great honour to be awarded anything or to be recognised. It was very exciting to go to the palace to receive the award from Prince – now King – Charles after my first round-the-world flight. I then persuaded him to come and see me off on my second flight, where he met my sponsors and some of our disabled scholars. So the MBE opened up more opportunities to raise awareness.”


Unfortunately, life dealt Polly a blow when an eye operation went wrong resulting in the loss of sight in her right eye, ending her flying adventures. But as ever, Polly decided to turn this negative into a positive.

She said: “Unfortunately we do all have hard times in life and when I lost the sight in my eye I was feeling pretty down. But then I realised that although I could no longer fly there was still plenty I could do.

“I truly believe that there’s always something you can do. Life throws curveballs and it’s not always easy, but you’ve got to try and live life to the full and find something else to do that is positive.”

Polly decided to embark on a Donkathon which consisted of driving her two donkeys – Wizard and Muffin – from North Moreton in Oxfordshire to North Wales.

Polly at the Celebration of VolunteeringShe said: “We did two miles an hour, eight miles a day, and it was 227 miles for the whole journey. It took us one month in total. It was complicated because I had to find a route without motorways, find stables for the donkeys each night, and look after their wellbeing.

“So many people offered to help us, it was amazing.”


This time Polly chose to fundraise for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Research through the MS Society, another charity that was close to her heart after her nephew was diagnosed with MS at 26 years old.

She said: “I had a sign made to go over the carriage which said ‘Donkathon for MS Research’. People stopped us in their cars to donate and we had a JustGiving page – in total we raised £52,000. It was absolutely amazing to have so much support from everybody; the world is a wonderful place filled with wonderful people.”

The University of Reading community

Polly’s relationship with the University of Reading began in the 1980s when she enrolled as a part-time student on the master’s in Music Education in the Institute of Education. Today, that relationship is still flourishing with the Whiteknights Campus now boasting the Polly Vacher Building and our Universal Voices choir benefitting from Polly’s longstanding support.

She recalled: “My time studying at Reading was fantastic. I was a music teacher before I embarked on the course and it really improved my teaching. My husband and I support the Universal Voices choir because, as a musician myself, I’m thrilled that music is being taken to a wider audience. This choir gives children the opportunity to sing in a big choir to an audience and is a tremendous experience. Dr Rebecca Berkley, who leads the choir, is so lively and enthusiastic and brilliant at getting the children to join in.”

Polly standing next to a sign for the Polly Vacher building with the then Vice-Chancellor David BellThe University’s relationship with Polly was strengthened even further in 2017 when a building on the Whiteknights Campus was named after Polly in recognition of her incredible charity work.

She said: “I don’t feel I deserve it, but I’m thrilled that it happened. To have a building named after me? Amazing! I never expected that. I’d like to think that everyone who walks through the door of the building will be inspired to believe that if you keep at it you can achieve your dreams.”

On attending the 2024 Celebration of Volunteering event as a shortlisted nominee, Polly said:

“It was such a special event and I was amazed by the wonderful work so many people were doing from Reading. It made me feel very proud to be an alumna of a University with such strong ethics.”

A good thing

But Polly said it’s not the accolades that mean the most to her – it’s helping to change other people’s lives for the better.

She said: “I’ve found that giving people something that improves their lives is what makes my life feel worthwhile. I love seeing other people succeed, seeing children doing well at school, watching people with disabilities experiencing new adventures, and seeing MS research progressing – if we can even facilitate a corner of these journeys then that’s wonderful.”

“Anything that you can do to help other people improve and enhance their lives has got to be a good thing.”

A picture of a piano advertising the Ukrainian ConcertPolly and her village have also been housing Ukrainian refugees since the war broke out and continue to support Ukrainians today. Polly is currently organising a concert in aid of Ukrainians, which will be held on Sunday 23 June at 3pm at the Church of St Mary Le More, Wallingford. The concert will feature Olga Pally – renowned Ukrainian concert pianist – and Yuliya Shypg – Ukrainian Soprano. Proceeds from the concert will go to the Shypyg Foundation, a Ukrainian charity supporting various war-related needs.

To find out more information about the concert, please contact and we can put you in touch with Polly.

Read about Polly’s motivation for opening up her home to those in need.