Happy feat: Joanne Law and (left) with mum Gillian at work
on the SOS bus Brian little/presseyE
On a night out with friends three years ago, Joanne Law suddenly realised that she'd had too much to drink and decided to leave the club she was partying in.
It was a move which was to transform her life and also lead to her taking part in next month's Belfast Telegraph RunHer event to raise money for her saviours that night.
"I was at The Box at the Odyssey on a girls' night out and realised I'd overdone it. I didn't want to be there any more, so I got my bag and went outside – I didn't even tell anyone where I was going."
What Joanne then discovered parked outside the Odyssey was a big, bendy, yellow vehicle – one of Northern Ireland's SOS buses.
The bus provides tea, coffee, warmth, support and even basic medical treatment to Belfast revellers and those in need. For some it's a service that provides a nice cup of tea after a night out. For others it can be a life-saver, helping those who have nowhere else to turn to.
"They were lovely to me," says Joanne. "They welcomed me on the bus, gave me soup and support and weren't disapproving or judgmental at all – I was underage at the time."
She explains: "With my permission they called my mum from my phone. She was due to drive from home in Moira to pick me up at 1.30am but luckily at around 12.30 that night she had already left.
"She knew I was in a bit of a state, but at least she knew I was safe until she got there."
There are two SOS buses in Belfast on Friday and Saturday nights – one at the Odyssey and the other in Shaftesbury Square. Each bus is fitted with plasma TV screens, PS3 consoles and even a medical bay, where a fully trained paramedic is on duty each night.
The team at the Odyssey bus cared for Joanne until her mum arrived and even escorted her out to the car wrapped in a blanket as she hadn't brought a coat with her.
"Until she realised it was me, mum was thinking to herself, 'God love the mother of that poor girl wrapped in the blanket!'" says Joanne.
As could be expected, Joanne was taken home and given a stern lecture the next morning. However, the family never forgot the help she was given by the staff of the SOS bus.
Joanne says: "Mum was really impressed by the volunteers on the bus and how I had been looked after. Not long after that night she signed up to volunteer."
Six months later Joanne's mum Gillian became team leader – as a trained nurse it's a job she is well suited for.
Joanne has since moved from the family home to Belfast to become a waitress, but in order to maintain the close relationship she has with her mother she, along with her boyfriend Michael, are now volunteers with the SOS bus on the first Saturday of every month.
"It's hard work but if 50 people come to the bus and we're able to help even one of them, then it's absolutely worth it," says Joanne.
"You realise what a vital service it provides. I think every one of my friends has used the bus at one time or another.
"It's now a destination for clubbers in the Odyssey. Before they try to get a taxi home they come and get a cup of tea so they can sober up a bit if they are feeling under the weather."
Joanne's experience both as a client and a volunteer on the bus have also made her rethink her own lifestyle.
"I don't drink anywhere near as much I as I used to. I see what happens to people, especially girls, who maybe lose a bit of control through over-consumption. I still have a tipple but I don't overdo it. After all, I know the consequences now."
SOS bus volunteers are well-trained and passionate about what they do. They spend one or two nights a month, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures during the winter, tending to anyone who needs them. The group works closely with door staff and police in and around Belfast and now even operates a minibus service collecting those in need or taking the injured to hospital.
"We get training days and we learn as we go along," says Joanne. "The experience is the kind of thing that will help us get jobs in the future."
Joanne and other volunteers will be taking part in the Belfast Telegraph's RunHer event at Stormont – and the big yellow SOS bus will be parked at the event to raise awareness.
She adds: "I just run to relax, I'm not part of a club or anything. I'm doing the 10K with some of the other girls, but I reckon I'll be the one straggling behind.
"We haven't set ourselves a fundraising target, because we think that every donation we get will be great."