Could you join the army of hospice volunteers?

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

If you are of an age, like me, and you’re born and bred in North Staffordshire, the chances are you will know someone who has received care at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Blurton during the last 40 years.

That’s how long Dougie Mac, as we call it, has been caring for local people.

Hopefully, no longer to does anyone view the place as ‘somewhere people with cancer go to die’ – as a member of my family once referred to it.

Dougie Mac is, and always was, far more than a hospice which provides end-of-life care.

If you ever have cause to visit you’ll find a bright, airy place which has more of a community feel than somewhere caring for sick patients.

I suppose that’s part of the magic. The first-class facilities, the modern decor, the beautifully-maintained gardens and the wonderful meals.

It’s actually a lovely place to be.

But what makes Dougie Mac truly special is the people who work there and the hundreds of people who give up their time as volunteers.

It costs more than £10 million each year to keep the hospice running – or £22,000 a day, if you prefer – much of this raised through donations, shop purchases and legacies from the people of North Staffordshire.

The fact is that sum would be a hell of a lot higher were it not for the army of volunteers who supplement the hospice’s paid-for staff.

Either that or the hospice’s income would be lower and it would simply be unable to offer the huge range of services it currently provides.

Some volunteers are students, many are retired people, others simply have a few hours a week to spare and want to give something back to their community.

Roles are many and varied – depending on whether someone wants to be based at the hospice, working with patients or out in the community helping with events or fund-raising.

Wherever you go in the hospice you’ll find volunteers.They answer the phones, they look after the gardens, they help maintain the buildings and they interact with the most important people – the patients and their relatives.

When the Prime Minister talks about the ‘Big Society’, people scoff. The truth is it’s been in action at Dougie Mac for decades.

Earlier this week I, along with BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres, Stuart George and Charlotte Foster, and the Hanley Economic Building Society’s chief executive David Webster, spent some time at the hospice as volunteers.

I found myself wearing a green throwaway apron (much to the amusement of colleagues back at The Sentinel newsroom) and working in the busy kitchen which, I discovered, operates a rolling 10-week menu which makes your mouth water.

Once I’d proved I could polish 40-off glasses for a do the following day, chef Stephen Pickerin (CORR), from Hanley, let me loose preparing two huge trays of braised steak for patients and staff.

Mum would have been proud of me.

I have to say it was quite a therapeutic experience and a lovely atmosphere within which to work – helped no end by the banter with Steve, a long-suffering Vale fan like myself.

I chatted to another volunteer, Keith, (a Stoke fan) who told me how he’d begun working at the hospice after retiring when he found himself wondering ‘what he was supposed to do now’.

Keith began as a volunteer in the hospice garden before neck and back pain had forced him inside where he now works as a kitchen assistant.

It’s quite clear that the volunteers are extremely well thought of by staff and are viewed as a vital part of the team.

As chef Steve said: “We really couldn’t cope without them.”

But it was something he said later that stuck with me as I drove away from the hospice.

Steve commented: “We get lovely compliments from the patients and relatives about the meals. The best thing is when you hear someone who is ill say: ‘I couldn’t face my food until I came here’. That’s really special.”

It’s volunteers like Keith, of course, who help Steve and the team in the kitchen achieve such incredible results and genuinely improve the quality of life for patients and their relatives.
Right now, Dougie Mac is desperate for more volunteers for all kinds of jobs 24/7.

If you think you could help out for a few hours a week, or more, in a patient-facing role, a fund-raising or income generation position or a hospice-based role, then call the Douglas Macmillan Hospice voluntary services team on 344332 or email workforce services@dmhospice.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Please help us to honour Our Heroes of 2014

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

It was back in early 2006 when I sat down with the then Editor of The Sentinel and we talked about creating a community awards campaign.

We kicked around some ideas for categories, thought about how the awards ceremony would work and finally came up with a name.

Nine years on and Our Heroes is firmly established as this newspaper’s flagship annual community event.

On September 25 an array of TV, stage and sporting stars and a host of civic dignitaries will gather on the red carpet to pay tribute to a remarkable group of individuals highlighted through our news pages.

Ask celebrities such as Jonny Wilkes, Nick Hancock, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks OBE and Olympic gold medallist Imran Sherwani and they will tell you that the Our Heroes Awards do is an incredibly humbling and grounding experience which makes all those in attendance feel extremely proud of our patch.

Every day now until July 31 you can read inspirational and humbling human interest stories in The Sentinel as we shine a light on each award nominee.

They range from children of courage and bright young things to charity fund-raisers, volunteers and carers, good neighbours and community groups. They include school stars and heroes of the NHS as well as emergency services and Armed Forces personnel who go beyond the call of duty.

Since 2006 we have published more than 1,000 Our Heroes nominations and more than 2,000 people have attended the gala awards dinner.

Previous award recipients have included foster carers, charity fund-raisers, paramedics, policemen and women, firefighters, soldiers, aspiring performers, doctors, nurses, receptionists, teachers, school caretakers and residents’ associations.

Winners have included cancer drug campaigners, the Women Fighting for Herceptin; courageous youngsters including meningitis sufferer Ellie-Mae Mellor and Caudwell Children ambassador Tilly Griffiths; ‘tin can man’ John Leese MBE who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Dougie Mac; and even the Staffordshire Regiment (now 3Mercian).

The local media is often criticised for focusing on the negative in society and fixating on bad news.

Our Heroes rather disproves that notion because it gets under the skin of the daily acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness shown by so many people in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

It’s not a campaign which will sell us thousands of extra newspapers but the goodwill and pride generated by highlighting all these amazing individuals is priceless.

The Our Heroes Awards is exactly what a local newspaper should be doing – a genuine antidote to all the hardship and misery, all the stories about deaths, crime, accidents, deprivation and job losses.

Each tale is inherently positive and highlights an unsung hero, heroine or group who perhaps otherwise would receive no recognition for their extraordinary lives.

And therein, of course, lies the problem for my colleagues and I which is that those nominated for an Our Heroes Award don’t believe what they do – day-in, day-out – is unusual.

It’s our job to convince them otherwise and to show them how special they really are.

In order to do that, however, we need your help. If you know someone, or a group, who deserves recognition then please just take a moment to pick up the telephone or email one of the reporters tasked with looking after a particular category.

Please help us to honour those who enrich the lives of others. Tell us who Our Heroes for 2014 really are.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Reunion revives memories of The Place to be for clubbers

A flyer for The Place reunion. Organiser Carol is pictured top left on a picture taken in 1991.

A flyer for The Place reunion. Organiser Carol is pictured top left on a picture taken in 1991.

My first experience of a nightclub was the leavers’ party for the class of 1988 at Holden Lane High School.

We could have chosen any of a number of venues – Maxim’s or Ritzy in Newcastle or perhaps even Chico’s by the bus station up Hanley.

But it was another city centre nightspot on which the under-dressed girls and spotty oiks from my school descended.

I remember shuffling around on the dancefloor to tracks by Erasure and casting furtive glances over at the girl I’d never had the bottle to ask out.

Like generations before us we were making memories at The Place – a legendary Potteries nightspot where our parents had once danced, got drunk and perhaps even fallen in love.

Enjoying the same leavers’ do with me that night was a 16-year-old called Carol who was to go on to develop a real affinity with a venue like no other in North Staffordshire.

Now a 41-year-old mum of one, Carol Cawley Holness has organised a huge reunion in the name of The Place which takes place tonight at a city centre nightspot just a stone’s throw from the Bryan Street venue which had been a magnet for clubbers since the Sixties.

Carol, who lives at Norton Heights, explained what prompted her to organise tonight’s event which is also raising hundreds of pounds for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice.

She said: “I love R&B and soul music and I travel all over the country for nights out which cater for fans. I go to other towns and cities like Preston and Manchester and Birmingham and one day someone said to me: ‘Why isn’t there a night like this in Stoke-on-Trent – it used to have a great club scene? That got me thinking.

“I didn’t really have any idea whether or not it would be popular. I thought perhaps that most people would travel from outside the area – but I was wrong.”

Working with her friend Helen Howell, Carol arranged The Place reunion at Jumping Jack’s which is part of the Liquid nightclub.

She said: “We sold out three weeks ago and I think we honestly could have sold another 500 tickets. It’s been so successful that we’re now organising another event for December 14 and I’m looking at arranging three nights a year.

“We’ve got people coming from Blackburn, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Huddersfield and Surrey – among other places – but what has really surprised me is that of the 850 tickets sold more than 500 have gone to people living locally.

“I think it has caught the imagination of my generation who are perhaps fed up that there isn’t a decent venue aimed at thirty-somethings who have had children but still like a good night out and want to enjoy the music they grew up with.”

Carol, who has a 19-year-old son, has more reasons than most to look back fondly on The Place.

She worked there for seven years – between 1989 and 1996 – and that’s where she met the man she went on to marry.

Carol said: “I think what I loved about The Place was the music and the people. It was my scene. If you wanted, say, house music – you’d go to Valley’s (Valentino’s nightclub) but for soul and R&B it was The Place.

“I think the Eighties and Nineties was a great era for soul and R&B. I absolutely loved the music and we were lucky to have someone like Trevor M – who was THE DJ at The Place – who had a real passion for it.

“The first thing I did when I started organising the reunion was to contact Trevor – who is very particular about the kind of gigs he does – and he was really supportive and came onboard straight away.”

She added: “I think I will be quite nervous when people start to turn up tonight. I just want to make sure people have a good night and then once the doors close I can relax and start to enjoy it myself.”

For details of future The Place reunions contact Carol on: 07854 141147.

Pick up a copy of the Weekly Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

You simply can’t put a price on giving dignity to the dying

The Dougie Mac is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

The Dougie Mac is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

It’s the place you only really come to appreciate when someone close to you is dying. A place which, if truth be told, many people in these parts are still more than a little afraid of.

The Douglas Macmillan Hospice, or the Dougie Mac as most of us know it, has been part of the fabric of life in the Potteries for as long as many of us can remember.

What began in 1973 as a terminal care home has grown exponentially over the last four decades to become a centre of excellence for palliative care.

What started with a £50,000 grant to the North Staffordshire Committee of the National Society for Cancer Relief has morphed into an organisation with an annual income requirement of £9.2 million.

Remarkably, £5 million of that comes from members of the public through donations, fund-raising events, lottery ticket sales, charity shop purchases and legacies.

All that money pays for services including a day therapy unit, respite care, specialist family lodges and the community nursing teams who provide invaluable care for people wishing to remain in their own homes.

People like my auntie Jean. People you will know.

Yet despite its staff of more than 250, its constantly-evolving site at Blurton, its 900-plus volunteers and its multi-million budget, the Dougie Mac has somehow managed to remain what it began as – an organisation which is by the community, for the community.

It exists because the NHS, wonderful as it is, makes no real provision for end-of-life care.

Focused as it quite rightly is on delivering children safely into the world and treating the sick, there is precious little thought and even less money given to those whose life’s journey is coming to an end.

That’s why places such as the Douglas Macmillan Hospice exist.

When the NHS can do no more and families have nowhere else to turn that’s where the Dougie Mac comes in.

When someone learns they are dying they, and their relatives, experience a whole range of emotions from fear and sadness to anger and even guilt.

At the Dougie Mac, no-one sits in judgement and no-one claims to have all the answers.

But the staff there – from the cleaners, kitchen staff and maintenance men to the reception staff, the nurses and the doctors – are entirely focused on helping those with life-limiting illnesses, and their loved ones, find value in the time they have left.

Given the nature of a hospice, you’d be forgiven, perhaps, for thinking that the Dougie Mac, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, is a sad place. You’d be wrong.

Walking around, as I’ve had the privilege of doing in recent weeks, you’d be amazed at how friendly and welcoming everyone is and by how content the patients and visitors are.

It’s no coincidence that the terminally-ill, anxious and frightened when arriving at the Blurton hospice for the first time, often relax once they come through the doors.

“This is where I want to die,” is a sentence that more than a few staff and relatives have heard down the years – such is the effect that this place has on people.

The work done at Dougie Mac, the care given by its expert staff, is a gift so precious that many feel the need to say thank you.

People like ‘Tin Can Man’ John Leese MBE, who sadly passed away last week.

John, who I had the pleasure of interviewing a while back, raised more than £350,000 for the hospice in memory of his late wife Olwen who had been cared for by the staff at the Dougie Mac.

When he came on stage to receive his Editor’s Special Award at The Sentinel’s Our Heroes awards night, he said to me that he hadn’t done it for the praise.

It seems to me that, like than man who rattled his tin can for years for the charity he loved, no-one associated with the Blurton hospice ever does it for a pat on the back.

They do it because they are so grateful that when they and their loved ones are at their lowest ebb there is a local organisation, funded by local people to pick up the pieces.

What the Dougie Mac and its near neighbour the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice do is give dignity to the dying.

They make every moment count by relieving pain and suffering, creating memories and giving those left behind a reason to go on.

We’re rightly proud of our hospices because you simply can’t put a price on the services they provide.

Happy birthday, Dougie Mac, and thanks for everything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Proud legacy that keeps on giving after 40 years

Sign pointing motorists to the Dougie Mac hospice.

There is a place in Blurton which is very close to the hearts of the people of North Staffordshire.

It’s a sprawling site, much of which isn’t visible as you drive past, and it may not look much from the outside.

However, looks can be deceptive and inside this very special place people find the strength, hope and courage to face the very worst that life can throw at them.

I am, of course, talking about the Douglas Macmillan Hospice which this year celebrates four decades of caring for people with life-limiting illnesses.

It is no exaggeration to say that most people in our neck of the woods know someone who has benefited from the ‘Dougie Mac’ – as it is known locally.

I’m no exception. My auntie Jean received invaluable support from the community nursing team during her final days.

Without the hospice, it is almost impossible to imagine just how many people with terminal illnesses, and their relatives, would cope.

This is the thought which perhaps spurred the pioneers back in the early 1970s who worked tirelessly to create what was the termed a ‘terminal care home’ here in the Potteries.

It was in 1969 that the North Staffordshire committee of the National Society for Cancer Relief (NSCR) received a grant of £50,000 to help create the Douglas Macmillan Home which was to be used exclusively for cancer patients.

A public fund-raising appeal was then launched with the aim of raising £330,000 in 10 years.

Thanks to the generosity of individuals, businesses and local authorities, the target was reached in just four years.

On January 2, 1973, the first in-patient was admitted to the home (the name hospice was introduced some years later).

As it has today, the in-patient unit had 28 beds – although, back then, each cost £7.20 per day. Patients were initially admitted for the remainder of the lives – whether that be a few days, several months or, as happened with one resident, 14 years.

When the home opened nursing staff consisted of five sisters, one staff nurse, two enrolled nurses and 15 nursing auxiliaries.

It’s a far cry from the Dougie Mac of today which boasts more than 250 full and part-time staff – including 50 people working out in the community – and more than 800 volunteers.

Over the years the home became a hospice which diversified so that it no longer focused its services solely on cancer patients.

From one main group of buildings which included the in-patient unit, a chapel and mortuary, the hospice has grown exponentially across the site.

The 1980s were a period of huge expansion for Dougie Mac, as summed up by Lynne Johnson who was the cook in charge when she joined in 1984.

She recalled: “During my 12 years of service I saw the hospice develop from a small, homely place to a centre of excellence – still holding on to the friendly atmosphere which attracted me initially.”

During the Eighties:
Bereavement care was introduced (1980)
Care in the community began (1983)
The day care unit became operational (1985)

A summerhouse was donated for the garden and the first ‘Light up a life’ Christmas tree service was held in 1989. This was also the year the hospice purchased its first computer which was used by the finance department.

Over the years a Community Nurse Specialist Team (PCNS), a Hospice at Home service and an Education Centre have all been added.

These are now all supported by a full range of clinical support services which include physiotherapy, occupational therapy, lymphoedema, chaplaincy, bereavement support, social work, psychology and diversional therapies.

As Dougie Mac celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, there’s no doubt its founders would be proud of their legacy which just keeps on giving to the people of North Staffordshire.

*The Sentinel will be publishing a special supplement to mark the Dougie Mac’s 40th anniversary in its editions on Tuesday, February 5.