It’s Thursday morning. Sunshine is bouncing off the walls and windows of Rachel House. Birds are singing. After a long, cold spring, flowers are bursting with pent up energy.
“You chose a good day to visit,” a smiling Lyndsay Stobie opens the front door to the Kinross hospice for children.
As welcomes go, it could hardly be warmer. Yet many people (including Lyndsay herself) admit to feelings of uncertainty on their first visit. That word ‘hospice’ casts an end-of-life shadow. But, as I’m about to discover, the building, the blossoming garden and the dedicated staff and volunteers who work here, are full of cheerful life. Like the children whose families enjoy comforting respite here, some of them for many years to come. Defying stereotypes, their stories are as uplifting as they are moving.
Why am I here? I’m visiting Rachel House because this year Pond Cottage is fundraising for the inspiring and desperately needed work of Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (more usually known as CHAS) through our Scotland’s Gardens Scheme events and activities.
And I want to know more about an unexpected personal connection between Rachel House and Pond Cottage. A welcoming invitation from community fundraiser Lyndsay Stobie included intriguing information. Almost thirty years ago – when the Daily Record was campaigning to raise money for what was then Scotland’s first hospice – the Montgomery family of Kinross House gifted four acres of tree-sheltered land to CHAS to build Rachel House. That was in December 1994, and by an odd chance, just a year previously Ray and I had bought our ten-acre slice of woodland and wetland from the Montgomery family – a little over two miles north of Kinross.
Like Rachel House, Pond Cottage is surrounded by fine old trees bequeathed by the Kinross Estate. But, while we overlook a pond created a century ago (probably for duck shooting), Rachel House and its garden catch glimpses of Loch Leven Nature Reserve. Today the great expanse of water is sparkling with sunlight.
Through the garden gate
By another lucky chance, Thursday is a day when gardening volunteers are at work, digging, weeding and planting. Lyndsay leads me through the garden to meet them, along a path lined with spring bulbs, through an arch framed with cherry blossom, past playful touches – sculptures and painted signs – among the plants.
Children’s bedrooms are on the ground floor opening to green space with play equipment and swings designed to take wheelchairs. We pass the beautifully planted quiet space around the three peaceful rooms reserved for end of life care. At the other end of the garden a secluded area is popular with teenagers getting a rare chance to hang out.
There’s evidence that children were actively involved in the building designed by Alan Marshall in 1994. It provides rooms for eight children with 24 hour one-to-one nursing care. There’s separate accommodation (and chance of a night’s sleep) for parents and siblings, a hydrotherapy pool, and comfortable common rooms for dining and socialising.
“Families have such different needs,” says Lyndsay, “for some coming here is a lifeline, there’s medical and social support, financial guidance. But it’s also a chance to make things happen. To have fun.”
The garden is for rest and fun. In an important sense it is a chance to live a normal life. Many families live in deprived areas, most do not have time to spend in gardens or public parks. “It’s not easy to get out when you’re looking after a child with a life-shortening condition,” says Lyndsay.
A kitchen garden
We round a corner. Two volunteers, Jo Brown and Angela Taylor, are digging behind a handsome sandstone wall marking the old Kinross estate. It’s another cheerful sight. In a developing kitchen garden, raised beds grow crops for the hospice, healthy young espalier apple trees, (donated by Kinross Order of St John to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee) promise autumn fruit. Rachel House gardening volunteers are looking forward to the return of a head gardener after two years without one, but clearly they have not been idle.
Jo and Angela have just planted rows of potatoes. “Earlies, second earlies and main crop,” says Jo, straightening up. She got to know CHAS as a Sunday School teacher bringing groups of young people to visit the hospice and applied to become a volunteer when she retired. “I was quite nervous the first time I brought a group of children here. Now sometimes people ask me, how can you work there? They just don’t know how happy this place is.”
It’s a recurring theme of our conversations. Another volunteer, Pam Paxton, weeding by the front gate, has been part of the Rachel House team for almost ten years. She wanted to help in the garden when she retired from her admin career but was asked to start in reception. “I wasn’t sure about working in the house but walking through the door for the first time I felt it was such a warm and happy place.”
Angela applied to help in the garden after becoming redundant from Lloyds Visa Centre during lockdown but she had known about CHAS since the pioneering campaign which began in 1991. Her friend’s sister, Lorraine Dickson, had to travel to Yorkshire for respite with her young son, Marc. She joined forces with another mother, Nancy Blaik, making the same journey with her son Daniel. “They wondered why there were several hospices in England and none in Scotland,” Angela tells me later.
Mission not so impossible
It’s a remarkable story (to be told more fully later), a “mission impossible” which quickly led to the founding of CHAS. With support of the Daily Record, a fund-raising appeal raised £4m towards the £10m building cost, the rest followed within 13 months. Scotland’s first children’s hospice was named Rachel House after Rachel, Lady MacRobert, in recognition of a £2 million donation by The MacRobert Trust.
“It was the fastest built hospice in the UK,” says Rami Okasha, CHAS chief executive, with a smile, on my second visit to the garden two weeks later.
Fund-raising is a constant fact of life for a charity providing high quality, multi-disciplinary “life and death affirming” care for a growing number of children and families facing the reality of life with life-shortening conditions. Medical advances mean longer lives for more children with terminal illnesses (recent CHAS research estimates more than 16,000 children aged 0-21 are in need of specialist care). Each year CHAS needs to raise £21.5 million to fund care across Scotland, including two hospices (Robin House opened in Balloch, West Dunbartonshire in 2005) plus a growing outreach programme of specialist care in hospitals and at home. The Scottish Government gives £7m which leaves £13m to raise from fundraising activities and generous sponsorship.
Volunteers are an essential part of this effort. Working in hospices, family homes,
or online from their own homes, they bring all kinds of skills and experience. Not least Craggan the golden retriever, a much-loved part of the Therapet team – with his own website page.
Volunteers also provide an invaluable link with local communities. Numbers have declined since the pandemic but there are more than 800 across Scotland and currently 102 volunteers in Kinross, 43 in Rachel House and 59 in the two shops in Kinross High Street.
Messages of hope and more to come
Sunlight is casting dappled shadow across the lawn as we finish our cups of tea. On my second garden visit, we’ve seen the early potatoes are already sprouting. I ask Rami if there’s a message he wants to emphasise. As CEO his tweets often convey urgency with optimism. CHAS is firmly resolved in its vital mission – to reach every family in need of help. It is hugely demanding and yet immensely satisfying work.
“There’s a wonderful camaraderie between staff and volunteers.,” says Rami. “Although hospices deal with sadness they are also places of huge fun. I think we owe a huge thank you to all our volunteers and their incredible gifts of time and ingenuity. We need them and want them to enjoy being here.”
There are so many stories to tell. We’re looking forward to learning more as we fundraise towards the inspiring work of CHAS so please don’t hesitate to get in touch for information.
Featured image at the top: Lyndsay Stobie, leads the way towards the kitchen garden [photo FY]
Images of Rachel House and Craggan with kind permission of CHAS
How to get involved: CHAS
The warm heart of hidden gardens (the remarkable story of an East Neuk community’s enduring commitment to CHAS)