Giving Dorset: Trust in Bournemouth – Youth Cancer Trust
Liam O’Hara looks at the work of Alum Chine-based Youth Cancer Trust, on its eighteenth birthday
Published in February ’16
Nestling between the small guesthouses and larger hotels of Bournemouth’s Alum Chine, the Youth Cancer Trust provides a holiday home-from-home to young people affected by all forms of the disease. Travelling to Dorset allows visitors to the charity the chance to behave like ‘normal’ teenagers for a week; they spend time with others who are dealing with a similar experience and enjoy everything about a location that contributes to their recovery.
‘This area is wonderful for them,’ says Brenda Clark, the Youth Cancer Trust’s founder and ‘mother’ to all the visitors she fondly calls her kids. ‘Within a couple of days I see the difference. They all get their colour back and are so relaxed.’ Dorset has always been a vital part of the charity’s success. The coast helps to foster an inspiring place where the trust’s guests can take part in activities that teenagers without cancer take for granted. ‘Dorset is so beautiful and so varied,’ adds Georgina Hillman, the charity’s administration manager. ‘The sea and countryside makes for a unique experience for the young people. It really is the perfect county’.
Brenda first realised there was a need for this method of care after her daughter, Tracy Ann, sadly passed away from cancer at the age of just 21. Tracy was placed in a geriatric ward, with very little opportunity to meet others of a similar age that were undergoing treatment. When the Clark’s wanted to go on a dream holiday to Lourdes, in Italy, Brenda was advised by consultants not to take Tracy out of hospital.
A year later, Brenda drew on these frustrations to work closely with the UK’s first teen cancer unit at Middlesex Hospital, gathering extensive research into what young patients would do if they had the chance to go on holiday. The answers were just the sort of responses any other teenager might say; to be somewhere they could have fun, make new friends and enjoy some freedom for a while. This much-needed therapy began with trial groups visiting Holton Lee, near Wareham, in 1997. Although built to care for older people with disabilities, the benefits of relaxing opposite Poole Harbour were clear to Brenda and proved that her burgeoning charity was a much-needed one. ‘They forgot about hospital and their treatments and felt in a really safe place down there,’ she adds.
When a handful of guesthouses went up for sale by Bournemouth’s sea front a year later, Brenda took the plunge and moved to Dorset. She renovated a small hotel to be the centre of the charity and named this new home after her daughter. ‘I’d never go back to London,’ muses Brenda. ‘The whole ambience of Bournemouth, which has got everything, sends the youngsters back rejuvenated.’
The views of visitors to Tracy Ann House since then supports Brenda’s vision. ‘My time here makes it easy to forget about having cancer and allows me to be positive and get on with life,’ insists Kirsty, one of the young people benefitting from a Dorset holiday. ‘Those few days of normality,’ adds Natalie, ‘and feeling free again is like nothing you could ever buy.’ This emphasis upon relaxation with peers and communication makes the Youth Cancer Trust unique. There is no other organisation which targets this subtle and overlooked element of cancer treatment.
The power to revitalize has been part of Bournemouth’s appeal since the Victorian era. In his 1841 book The Spas of England, Dr Augustus Bozzi Granville MD FRS, reflected that the seaside town offers a perfect place for ‘delicate constitutions’ to be ‘near the sea and to be able to have recourse to its water and its breezes… for the restoration of lost strength’. Although the team tend to put things differently over 150 years later, the appeal of a visit to the Youth Cancer Trust for today’s young patients (some from inner-cities or disadvantaged areas of the country) is certainly as strong. ‘We’ve had youngsters visiting here that have never seen the sea,’ remarks Brenda. ‘To go down to the beach and just sit in deckchairs is an amazing experience for them.’
In addition to enjoying the coast, Brenda and her team ensure that visitors see the rest that Dorset has to offer. Groups might enjoy dry-slope skiing in Christchurch, picnics in the North Dorset countryside or find themselves looking out at Old Harry Rocks as they feast on fish and chips.
This brand of positive therapy is increasingly seen as a significant part of the jigsaw that is recovery from the disease. ‘The children (who visit) are living longer,’ states Brenda. ‘I’ve seen over 20 years the improvement in the survival rate amongst patients’. Whilst this outlook is better for those battling cancer, survivors often have to live with disabilities, depression and mental health issues that result from their treatments. The team at the Youth Cancer Trust call these ‘late effects’ and maintain that difficulties during remission are just as significant hurdles to a full recovery as anything else. Even so, Brenda remains positive about the trust’s continued role in the rehabilitation of her ‘kids’. The charity plans to expand its space and offer even more activities in the future, with the trust seeking funds to complement the existing support they receive from fundraisers and rotary clubs across Dorset. A strategy to set up an organic vegetable garden is just one example of rehabilitation that makes use of Bournemouth’s seemingly endless summer sunshine, whilst also contributing to the general health of those staying with the trust at Alum Chine.
‘I’m going to my first YCT wedding this year,’ Brenda mentions. The couple in question met at Tracy Ann House and are both now healthy survivors. This is just one of the many optimistic stories that emerge as Brenda, who remembers all the young people that have visited in the past, shows off the facilities at the guesthouse. ‘I’m looking for a suitable hat for the occasion,’ she jokes, excited that there is another reason to celebrate the fantastic work of this important Dorset charity. ◗