Life

Happy first birthday to CLIC Sargent oasis Amy's House

Geraldine Burns, Sharon Reid, house manager Kate Burns and CLIC Sargent UK Home from Home manager Cecilia Milburn at Amy's House Picture: Hugh Russell

THIS weekend sees the first birthday of Amy’s House in College Gardens, Belfast. Where once there was a busy office complex, the downturn in the property market made it possible for a leading cancer charity to buy and convert the building and the ribbon was cut at the end of January 2016.

Today Amy’s House is a place of comfort and care. The original commercial property has been transformed into a stylish five-bedroom home from home with a comfy lounge, streamlined kitchen, quiet rooms and a roof garden. Sounds idyllic and for many families in Northern Ireland it’s more just that.

One parent told me: “Without this place we could never have coped.”

This is the second CLIC Sargent ‘Home from Home’ to be established in the city; Paul’s House was opened close to the Children’s Hospital in 2013 and is specifically for children, whereas this modernised building is a short walk from the City Hospital and is designed for young people aged from 16 to 24 years of age.

Cecilia Milburn, UK Home from Home manager gave an example.

“When a Queen’s University student was diagnosed and required treatment it was unsuitable for him to return to his student digs because of the dangers of infection so he moved into Amy’s House, set up a desk and continued his studies. His mum lived in Co Tyrone so she came to stay with him when he was feeling particularly poorly and his friends joined him for their study sessions, so we’d lots of chat going on with laptops and sticky notes everywhere.”

There is often laughter as well as tears in this place where confidentiality is paramount.

Every room has a name, I was sitting in Brigid’s Room – Brigid was the Celtic goddess of healing according to Irish folklore – though it's more usually called the kitchen. There I met Geraldine Burns and Sharon Reid, housekeepers for both homes, Cecilia and later house manager Kate Burns.

PEACE OF MIND

As we were chatting, we were joined by an NHS doctor, originally from Pakistan now working in Enniskillen, here with his son.

“I knew most of the charities but I’d never heard of CLIC Sargent. I am so impressed and grateful and I’m determined to return to Pakistan and open such houses. There are 20 million in my city. When someone is ill they often sleep on the streets as there isn’t accommodation for them during treatment.

"Here I can stay with my son and we can share time together whereas in hospital it’s so busy and so much going on there is no chance to relax or have privacy. Here we have peace of mind.”

This kindly man added: “My only problem with Amy’s House is the size of the saucepans – they are too small for me to cook for everyone!”

This family have been living in Amy’s House for almost three months and have found that it’s all about reducing the impact of cancer not only on the person concerned but on the family, keeping them together as a unit, a place where the young person can rest between treatments with family members by their side to support them, families who otherwise would have to travel miles often on a daily basis. Now they have stress free and financially free accommodation.

THE IMPACT OF CANCER

"Over the last few decades we’ve seen improvements in survival rates for many forms of childhood cancer and that’s very positive. However, the impact of cancer on a young life can be long-lasting and considerable. It's vital to ensure that every child and young person receives support to not just survive cancer but to thrive," Cecilia said.

“Young cancer patients can often have a difficult path to diagnosis, with 53 per cent of under-14s being diagnosed as an emergency case. Cancer treatment can be incredibly gruelling and take a long-term physical and mental toll. That’s why support services are vitally important and why CLIC Sargent will fight for every young life struck by cancer."

The charity is all about the patient, their feelings and their needs. A group of young people were asked to walk from the Cancer Centre at the City Hospital to the house just to make sure it was an easy and accessible walk and their conversation was interesting, each comparing their condition with their new friends. One said her cancer was usually found in babies, another that his was more often in old men, emphasising the fact that cancer is a hard condition to tackle so this house gives an oasis where they can talk, compare experiences, sit with parents or friends in an atmosphere of goodwill where the pressure is taken off their shoulders as much as possible.

It might be in the kitchen or the lounge, perhaps in the Haven, a quiet room, or the Oasis Room with computers and a keyboard where paintings feature a ballerina and a depiction of Pulp Fiction – “Tasteful but funky!” – is Cecilia’s take on the youthful artwork.

The bedrooms vary, a single which can be transformed into a double if necessary, family suites with kingsize, single and a pullout beds, wardrobes, television and in all the rooms, an en suite toilet and shower.

For the staff there are one-to-one meetings every month, there is bereavement training and in-house counselling. Everyone contributes and everyone becomes part of the wider family in this caring environment.

Obvious question. Who was Amy? The house is named in tribute to 20-year-old Amy Reid from Newtownards whose family raised more than £35.000 since her death in 2013.

To find out how you can help support children and young people with cancer and their families, contact the CLIC Sargent Belfast Fundraising team on 02890 725 780 or www.clicsargent.org.uk

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