13th February 2018

Faith Into Action

(from www.lifeandwork.org)

 

Thomas Baldwin meets the outgoing chair of Children's Hospice Across Scotland, and Church of Scotland Elder, Professor Gordon Dickson


For a place that you might expect to be mostly about death, Rachel House is remarkably full of life.

The House is one of only two children’s hospices in Scotland – the other is Robin House, in Balloch - both run by CHAS (formerly Children’s Hospice Association Scotland, now operating as Children’s Hospices Across Scotland).

Tucked away behind the centre of Kinross, one end of the discrete two-storey complex rings with noise: happy chattering children, singing along to the music therapy, playing with the toys scattered around the common area.

In the next room, there are pool tables, musical instruments and computers for teenagers.

In the bedrooms, the emphasis is on homeliness and familiarity, with the children’s own bedding, toys and pictures. It’s as far removed from a typical clinical environment as it can be.

But then the reality hits home when we are shown to the room where children who have died can be laid in bed so their family can spend time with them until the funeral; and realise that the hundreds of pictures of happy, smiling children on the walls are of former Rachel House users who have now died.

There’s joy here, but underlying it all is the fact that all of the parents visiting are living with the unthinkable reality that their child is going to die young.

Rachel House accommodates up to eight children for a few days at a time. Parents can either leave or sleep in the rooms for families upstairs; either way, it’s a break from the relentless pressure of looking after a child with medical needs.

“Just to be able to come here, relax and sleep and to know someone else is taking the strain and burden is a huge thing,” states one parent’s testimonial; another says “For us, the highlight is being able to come and go as we please… at home, there is never more than one hour when we (don’t) need to do something.”

“It’s the understatement that makes it so real for me,” says Professor Gordon Dickson, who has just stepped down as chairman of the charity. “If CHAS wasn’t able to help, either through the hospices or at home, then that lady who never has more than an hour in which she doesn’t have to do something would just be doing that for 24 hours every day.”

Gordon was an academic for about 25 years specialising in risk management, as well as a company director and briefly vice-chair of Greater Glasgow Health Board. In 2004 he became chief executive of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland, where a colleague asked him to become involved with CHAS.

“I think it was somewhere in my head that there was a body that looked after children who were dying, and that was probably all I knew. But when you join the board of a big charity like CHAS, you realise all the things you didn’t know.

“It does consume a very great deal of your time when you’re on the board of a charity like this. CHAS has 250 members of staff and over 800 volunteers, and last year cost £13 million to run and had 152 new admissions. It’s a big enterprise.”

But there was another motivation behind Gordon’s decision to serve. Having grown up in the Church of Scotland, he has been an elder in the Church most of his life, now at Greenbank Church in Clarkston, to the south of Glasgow.

“Faith is a very important part of my life, and so being involved with CHAS at this level I saw as a real act of service. It wasn’t just words, it was actually doing something: faith in action if you like.”

However, he points out that the CHAS connection with the Church goes a lot deeper than just him.

“Over the last 24 years people associated with the Church of Scotland have, one way or another, donated over £1.43m to CHAS.

“I suppose for me it just emphasises the huge generosity that there is, and the caring that there is. Caring isn’t a monopoly of the Church of Scotland, but certainly you can see in that generosity the fact that people do care.”

Gordon’s 12 years as chairman have included a lot of major developments for CHAS. Most importantly, a major study conducted with the Scottish Government quantified for the first time the need for CHAS’ services.

“We found that there are 15,400 babies, children and young people under 25 in Scotland who are living with a life-shortening diagnosis. In the year in which the study was carried out, 195 of them died – one third of them in the care of CHAS.

“So there are two young people out there each week dying from a life-shortening condition that we are not reaching.

“And so our new plan is to reach every family in Scotland. The Scottish Government is helping greatly by giving us parity of funding with adult hospices, which means that heading towards 50% of our costs will be met by the government.”

Other big issues during his time have been the development of work with teenagers and young adults, to help young people transition into more age appropriate care; and the growth of the CHAS at Home service in which staff provide respite care in the young person’s home.

With the CHAS reins handed over to George Reid in September, Gordon will have more time to spend with his wife Moira, their two daughters and three grandsons.

I ask what will stay with him from his time with the charity.

“The overwhelming feeling is ‘how on Earth do you cope if you are told your child is going to die?’ And if CHAS wasn’t there to help it would be a bleak, bleak outlook.

“If you turn that around to my Christian beliefs, you have to turn your faith into action, and the small part I have played is my way of giving life to my faith.”


CHAS last year launched the Keep the Joy Alive campaign, with the aim of doubling the charity’s income so it can reach every child and family in Scotland who could use its help. Find out more and donate at www.chas.org.uk

This is an abridged version of an interview in February's Life and Work. Download or subscribe


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