Many charities never tell their stories. They don’t have the time.
That’s why I enjoy supervising Untold Stories at the University of Sussex. They’re first person accounts that bring to life the value of community and voluntary groups – as told by their volunteers and the people they work with.
This Untold Story is about the ABC Fund – The Anne Bickmore Children’s Fund. It’s a small Sussex charity that organises treats for families and children who desperately need a break.
The beginnings of the ABC Fund are wrapped up with one family:
Nick and his parents, Sam and Tim.
Tim turned up at the pool one day, with Nick in his arms. He’d been told that he needed to swim. So he joined my swimming school. And then I found the story of Nick unfolding in front of me.
It was 1997. At the time, Anne Bickmore was a swimming teacher. Tim and Sam came to her because they’d been told by the doctor that their two year-old would benefit from being in the water. Tim:
Our first son, Nick, was born in 1995. Straight away we knew we had problems, because one leg had some bones missing. Unfortunately, this has been the start of a long catalogue of misfortunes that we have suffered as a family.
Over the months that followed, Anne got to know all three of them very well:
Nick was going up to Great Ormond Street. Up and down to London, because of his leg. One day, I turned up at the house to find him lying in bed. There was a cage around his leg. He was trying to stretch his leg, with absolutely nothing to do, totally immobilised.
It was about Christmas time. So I arranged for Father Christmas to turn up with a present for him. And that was really the beginning of the ABC Fund.
A couple of years later Nick’s parents made a very difficult decision.
But one that was best for Nick’s long-term health.
Nick had an amputation when he was five years old. And then my wife Sam lost her mother very suddenly in 2002. Sam has also experienced ill-health, including epilepsy and arthritis. So I had to become a carer and give up full-time work to look after the family.
Sam agrees that it was a very stressful time:
Anne could see we were struggling. Nick had had some quite heavy going treatment which resulted in his having his leg amputated. So the ABC Fund decided to send us away for the weekend. It was a real treat. It really helped us to have some free time together without the stresses, knowing the children were okay.
But even after that, the ABC Fund didn’t stand down. They brought in gifts and spent time with him. There was a hamper at Christmas and paying for us to go to the pantomime. The children absolutely love that. It was so lovely seeing them being happy, laughing. All the pain was forgotten about.
Small treats that make a big difference.
There’s a danger that we dismiss treats. Aren’t they fleeting things that only last as long as it takes to, say, eat a chocolate bar from an ABC Fund hamper? Or at most, two hours of booing and clapping at a pantomime?
But Anne says that these little moments make a lasting impression:
Last year I had a lady in tears, because we put some M&S teabags in her hamper. She said it was a luxury beyond all belief, because M&S was something they never got.
And that fleeting hour or couple of hours is talked about forever. I met a lady on Saturday night. She said to me, I know who you are. Three years ago we were in a really difficult situation and we had pantomime tickets from you. I’ve never forgotten that. Never.
Yes, they really do remember. We had a family who were being abused by the father. The police rang us and asked whether we could do something for them. So we did. That was at Christmas. Then I went into a school in January, to give a talk about the ABC Fund. And this little girl sidled up to me and said that it was absolutely wonderful what we’d done. And that her mum was in tears at the hamper.
It’s a bit like Topsy!
Since the ABC Fund became a charity in 2005, referrals from the police, social services and other agencies have grown. So Anne and her small team of volunteers are always trying to keep up with demand:
It’s a bit like Topsy. It’s grown and grown and grown. Now we’re up to 100 hampers this Christmas. They cost about £35 each.
Then there are the pantomimes. On certain days the whole of the stalls at Eastbourne Devonshire Park Theatre are full of children – from hospices, from bereaved families, fostered children, young carers and children who’ve been referred by social services. Children who don’t usually have the chance to see live theatre. They just don’t get out for a treat.
Long term commitment.
Throughout this busy time, Anne has always kept in touch with Nick (now 19) and Tim and Sam. And, as Sam points out, the growth of the ABC Fund gave them a new perspective:
I know it’s a funny thing to say but, when you have a child with lots of difficulties and problems and then you see 99% of other people being okay and having happy families and not having all these hospital visits, well, it does make you feel sort of picked out. It makes you feel that you are the only ones.
But then, seeing other families and children benefitting from the ABC Fund, that really makes you feel that you are just one of many. And I found that took a lot of pressure off us, because for a while, we did feel that we were the only ones. But in fact, we were just one of many.
The ABC Fund is run entirely by volunteers. They give all their time and expertise for free. That means every penny raised goes to the children and families referred to the Fund. If you’d like to find out more Anne and her work, click here.
You can hear what a difference charities make by listening to two Untold Stories here.
Oh, and Happy Christmas!