Week 3 - Martin House
I left home on a cold but sunny Sunday evening ready to make the 4 hour drive to Leeds. I arrived late at my hotel Wetherby and settled into my room ready for my first day with Martin House children's hospice. As well as a whole load of interviews with the local press!
It was an early start for me. My first stop on the frosty Monday morning was at BBC radio Leeds where I was interviewed for the morning show about my good deed diary, the Nicest Job and my week with Martin House. I was then whisked into a smaller interview room where I was then interviewed by BBC radio York, not a bad start for just before 9am on a Monday.
The sweeping driveway that takes you into Martin House has a welcoming feel. The 1980's build sits perfectly in the spacious grounds perfectly designed to give a sense of home and tranquillity to the families that stay here. Above the hospice are the charity offices that house the fundraising, marketing and retail team who are the heart of the organisation. But before I could even put my feet on the ground I was whisked into even more interviews with Capital FM, BBC Look North TV and local radio.
Once all the madness had subsided, Alyson, the head of fundraising, took me down into the hospice. A very rare visit I have now come to understand. The charity are incredibly protective of the house and quite rightly so. They do their best to uphold the integrity of the house by not letting a wealth of visitors trample through. This place is a home away from home; Its not a hospital it's a respite for children and families to come and get away from their incredibly stressful lives. So for them having lots of visitors go through the house on a 'tour' just isn't viable.
During my time in the hospice I was invited to attend an art class. I helped paint banners with some wonderful children and their parents for the latest fundraising activity, Martin House's own 'Strictly Come Dancing'. A group of parents are having professional dance lessons to put on their own dance competition in aid of raising money for the hospice (and boy do they raise some money!). This is what I admire about Martin House, their team. All of the the staff are so passionate and creative, they've filled the year with a range of events to help raise the profile of the hospice and also raise money! From "Strictly Come Dancing" to dragon boat races and a charity auction, they are covering all bases.
During my art class I met a lovely young boy who loves puppets. He showed me the amazing puppet he had made and the joy that it brought to him. To be very honest I was totally blown away with his artistic talent!
As I walked back down the corridor of the house and back up to the fundraising team the reality of what I had just experienced hit me. These kids are dying. There really is no easy way of saying it. The reason why these families are here is because they have a child with life limiting conditions, they are un-curable. This hospice is here for the sole reason of making that journey, be it a small or long, a happy one. It's important to note that Martin House isn't a sad place, it's a happy place where sad things happen every day.
After spending the rest of the day meeting all the team and getting to know their roles and why they joined Martin House I headed to my hotel, reflective and humbled by the days events.
Tuesday was a different but familiar day for me. I walked into Wetherby, the nearby town where I spent my day at the newest charity shop in the Martin House portfolio (only 3 weeks old!). I met the store manager, Hazel, and instantly got stuck in doing what I do best, talking and selling! After years of being in retail I was like a duck to water and it didn't take me long to start suggesting a few changes. I must firstly point out however that the reason for my visit at the store was to help impart some retail wisdom and make suggestions for change. So after a good long look around and a great chat with Hazel, we both got busy.
As most traditional charity shops go this one is great. It's brand new and has adopted some very non charity shop traits. Big screens and lovely fixtures but of course it contains a lot of charity shop stock, known as brick and brack. I made some suggestions to create zones in the store and bring all the similar items together to make the shopping experience easier for the customer. Within half an hour of making jewellery department, stock was flying off the shelves with women making a B-line for the rings and bangles. We did the same for womenswear and shoes and really got the shop looking more shop-able. Hazel had some great ideas too and between the both of us we managed to turn the shop into a shopping haven! Tired from being on my feet all day, something I haven't done in a little while I headed back to get some rest.
Wednesday saw me with Steph, the retail manager at Martin House HQ. She is a small but mighty force that looks after all of Martin House's 9 retail outlets and is the visionary behind pushing the retail division forward. I spent the majority of the day with her and other members of the fundraising team feeding back my ideas from an objective eye. We came up with the great idea of getting the students at Leeds University involved by looking into doing a pop up shop where they can swap items of clothing. The swap shop would allow students to bring in 3 items of clothing they don't wear and swap it for 1 item that Martin House has. Generating a buzz and some great new quality stock for the stores.
In the afternoon I had a tour around the building and the grounds. John, who was looking after me took me into the hidden chapel that they have at Martin House and it was truly spectacular. A small building set into the ground with panoramic windows looking over the grounds from the back. In the corner of the room was a prayer tree where parents and children could hang their prayers. A beautiful sentiment.
My final day at Martin House was the best. After arriving around 9am I was taken down to the kitchen to meet Robin, the chef at the hospice Robin has been at Martin House since the beginning, 27 years. He has fed every single person that has ever walked through Martin House's doors and he welcomes every single one of them with a cup of tea and a slice of homemade cake. He, out of everybody, is the heart and soul of the hospice and It was an honour to be asked to work alongside him.
My job for the morning; to help prepare lunch for the residents and staff. I think my duties were slightly hindered by the fluent level of conversation between Robin and myself. He was so interested in me that we ended up doing more talking than we did anything else. I even had to remind him to stir his eggs because he got so passionate about what he was saying to me his hand stopped stirring!
After lunch had been prepared I got to sit in the house around the big table exactly like the round table from the 'Knights of the Realm' and had lunch with all care staff and parents. The fact that everybody (staff included) sit down at lunch and dinner with the residents is one of the special reasons Martin House is unique. You can't replicate the love and tranquillity in that place. Despite it being a children's hospice I never felt sad and that was emphasised when I sat round that table for lunch. Laughs, giggles, conversation and happiness was abundant.
My amazing day continued into the afternoon where I had a music session with a terminally ill child. They were so full of life and so musical that it was so magical to sit for an hour and play music to and with them. From the guitar to the drums to see their beaming smile and clapping hands has been the most incredible experience on the nicest job so far.
Sitting here at home away from the hustle of the hospice a whirlwind of emotion has hit me. Realising that I was in a place, which cares for dying children is on the surface hard to process, but on reflection a life altering experience. If you've never lost a child, which I never have, it can somehow be slightly hard to understand the feelings and emotions of what the parents experience.
See I had heart surgery when I was 8 years old and I was told that I might not make it. To me, I never really understood what that meant and as a result never really emotionally experienced the severity of the situation. But for my parents it must have been a whole different story; one I cant even fathom to understand. Being here this week makes me understand on some level how they must have felt; heartbreakingly sad and overwhelmingly difficult to process. But what this week at Martin House has taught me is that if you have love in your life and an amazing support network around you, you can overcome any hardship and obstacle.
Next week I think I may need to take my tissues. I am with Bliss, a charity which cares for babies born too soon or too sick. My first 3 days are spent in intensive and neonatal care.