Paul Streets: My own loss reminded me why charities matter

For many, charity staff are the only people ‘in the corner’ of their beneficiaries, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

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This blog was originally published in the September / October edition of Third Sector.

This summer has been a sad one for me. My mother died. She was 85. She had not been well for some time, but it already feels like she leaves a huge hole, especially as my father also died three years ago, also aged 85.

Who will listen unconditionally? Who will support me whatever I do? Who knew me from the moment I arrived and has been with me ever since?

The lack of any effective family support network is one reason they end up turning to the charities we fund.

I was already aware, but have been reminded, that I’m among those lucky enough to have lived life as part of a stable, supportive family and, at times, I have taken that for granted. It is not so for many of the people we seek to reach through the charities we fund: the single homeless man; the refugee; many of those who leave prison; the woman fleeing home for a refuge; the young person who leaves care. The lack of any effective family support network is one reason they end up turning to the charities we fund.

Nothing can replace the wraparound of a supportive family, but from what I see from visiting small charities, and as evidenced by our recent report The Value of Small, this ability to provide unconditional, flexible, yet structured support is one of the main reasons small charities work. No contract would ever specify this approach and no state institution could ever provide it. It’s intimate, immediate and initially intangible. Yet, without that kind of support provided throughout my life I wouldn’t be the person I am.

The other brief glimpse I had into the lives of the people we seek to reach was during mum’s tortuous last two weeks, as she experienced the ill effects of a well-meaning and benign, but confused and disconnected NHS. She was told one thing, then another. Doctors dropped in and out, issuing rapid verdicts, then leaving the excellent nurses to pick up and interpret the pieces. At times it felt like she was an interesting case study. It was agonising. Yet we as family faced all of that with her, as advocates.

For many, those charity staff represent the only people “in the corner” of their beneficiaries

It reminded me that small charities are family in all but name for people with chaotic lives. They’re the people advocating and joining up different state actors: welfare agencies, social services, health services, housing, the police and criminal justice system, and so on.

For many, those charity staff represent the only people “in the corner” of their beneficiaries, reading letters for people who aren’t able to, arranging transport to appointments or appealing decisions made in offices based on statistics for people who don’t value themselves enough to know they deserve better. In my mum’s final weeks it felt like my family had given over control. It’s hard to imagine how that must feel when that’s all you know.

No wonder it is to so hard to turn people’s lives around. We are so lucky to have dedicated people on the front line of thousands of charities around the country committed to trying to do just that.

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