Student flying high as RSPB volunteer

RSPB Bempton volunteer Leo Kokoszko, left, talks to Jamie Penman at the popular nature reserve.
RSPB Bempton volunteer Leo Kokoszko, left, talks to Jamie Penman at the popular nature reserve.

A student has overcome a major personal hurdle to become an outstanding volunteer at RSPB Bempton Cliffs.

Leo Kokoszko, who has autism, is a 20-year-old volunteer at the birdwatching site.

Due to his difficulty concentrating, Leo was labelled ‘the naughty kid’ at school and left with a smattering of GCSEs.

However, a chance conversation about his love of seabirds with a Bempton Cliffs staff member led him to start volunteering at the reserve.

The bird-watcher had been visiting this stretch of coast with his family since the age of 10, but on a day of poor visibility two years ago he retreated to the visitor centre and began chatting to RSPB team members.

Having impressed with his knowledge of seabirds, he was encouraged to join as a volunteer during a later visit.

From struggling to say hello to visitors, Leo has grown in responsibility and now leads tours and workshops, and is teaching the ropes to another young volunteer with autism.

He has also taken part in rescues of seabirds that have become disorientated near the pathways on top of the cliffs, learning how to handle and release them safely.

The wildlife enthusiast is a font of knowledge on the 250,000 birds nesting in the nooks and crannies by the North Sea and can help schoolchildren spot a puffin at 50 paces.

Leo’s own new-found confidence has spread to every part of his life and away from the beauty spot he enjoys golf, bird-watching, walking and plays drums in a rock band.

Leo said: “Before I would never have talked to a stranger. If I walked into a room of people I didn’t know I would have walked straight back out again. I was very socially awkward.

“Volunteering has made me jump straight in and while it was a massive step at first I like getting my passion across, even when I talk to visitors who don’t speak English as a first language.

“My family and friends have all said how much my confidence has improved and my parents are very proud of me.

“It’s only in the past few years I have got real mates outside the classroom and now I feel I could walk down the street and say hello to anyone.

“I can stand on the viewing platforms hundreds of times and it never gets boring.

“I absolutely love it, each time there is something different to point out, whether it’s a chick making its first flight or a minke whale passing by in the sea. There are also so many different people to talk to every time I come here and I really enjoy sharing my passion for wildlife.

“It all came from nothing really after I visited the cliffs one day but it’s massively changed my life.”