If you’ve read my guest post on ‘My Shelves are Full,’ you’ll know that The Perfect Shelter is a very special and personal book.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer took the world from under us, and it was thanks to the support of many, many special people that we, as a family, found hope and love in the most difficult of times.
But in this post, I wanted to shine a light on a charity based in Exeter, called Force.
Force came recommended to us as a support network for our children, but they ended up being much, much more. I’m delighted to be joined by Paul Grace, who is part of the psycho-oncology team and the lead for family support at Force. Paul has very kindly agreed to talk further about the brilliant work they do.
Clare: Could you tell us a little bit about Force and the work you do?
Paul: Force has been a charity for over 20 years. It started off in the RD&E hospital in the oncology ward. It’s grown to a regional sized charity. Every patient in the hospital is given information about us. We do all the non-medical support for patients during, before and after treatment. Our services include emotional and psychological support and complimentary therapies, such as massage and physiotherapy. We also offer benefits advice, enable peer support through facilitated groups and well-being advice such as diet and exercise. It’s really wrap-around support, care, advice, guidance. It can be in person, or as it is at the moment, over the phone or online.
Clare: It’s so helpful having all those essential services in one place. I’m not surprised to hear Force has continued to grow and flourish. Can you tell us more about how the charity has evolved?
Paul: A handful of people saw the need for extra support for those with a cancer diagnosis. Some very compassionate and very practical people started fundraising to see what else could be done. Out of that small group of people, a purpose-built centre was created in the hospital premises.
Clare: And what a beautiful centre it is! Where did your involvement at Force begin?
Paul: I came from ChildLine where I was a supervisor with NSPCC. Just over five years ago, I had the space and opportunity to develop the family side of Force’s work. Our team now includes a colleague who works with teens and another colleague who works alongside me supporting younger children. We also bring in other specialist therapists, as you know.
Clare: Yes! My children were two of a very lucky few who took part in a series of play sessions with Amy, a drama therapist. What does support look like for families with young children facing a diagnosis of some kind?
Paul: The start of a connection with a family is nearly always a conversation with parents or grandparents or carers, to find out about what the family’s situation is like, the pressures they’re facing and the impact of diagnosis and treatment. Psychotherapy or counselling sounds a bit formal, but we get to know families through conversation and what we hope is that families find Force a safe place, so they can think out loud about what they might be scared of and what might be troubling them. From there we can work out a situation to support and take the pressure emotionally and psychologically. We hope that people will feel a bit more orientated about how to support their children.
From there, children of all ages are then invited into the centre. I’ve worked with children from 3 years and upwards. For smaller children it’s nearly always more helpful to have parents in the room. We have a set up that includes, sand tray, play figures, art materials. Principally, it’s about making the child feel safe in the room, in the centre, and allowing them to get to know me or another therapist. Then we can work slowly towards what’s concerning them and for a little one that’s nearly always through play and art. It’s about establishing a relationship and a safe place where they can start talking. Then things can unfold from there. It’s in parallel to how you do that in your writing, in narrative form. It’s a way for a child to be able to create or relate feeling safe and being held in that.
Clare: Can you tell us about the theory or principles behind how children cope in challenging times?
Paul: If I give talks I might explain the work my team does by using the imagery of a tree growing around railings. It’s a way of visualising how children can adapt to the impact of a serious illness in the family. I use this visual because we can’t pretend that a serious illness won’t affect children, but it doesn’t have to be an affect that ripples throughout their life. The tree is impacted, yes. It does need to negotiate growing around the railings. But if you look up, the tree flourishes. There is going to have to be an effect; it could be sorrow, feeling vulnerable or suffering, but that doesn’t have to define or constrict who those children are or become. In fact, in time they might develop into young people who have empathy, compassion and understanding for suffering.
Clare: That is such a useful and hopeful imagery, thank you for sharing it with us. What the best bit about your job?
Paul: One of the things I really like is when a child or children start coming into the centre and you can see they know it’s their place. That Force is a place for them. They are happy and comfortable coming in and start playing or painting straight away. It makes me very happy to see them at home in the centre. It’s important to me that they know there’s a place backing the family up and that they are not alone.
Clare: With the school holidays fast approaching, do you have any words of advice for families in lockdown?
Paul: Some of the things that I’ve noticed that people share at the moment, is that homeschooling is an additional and new pressure. I would encourage parents to accept that they are parents first and foremost and that anything achieved is good and their best. Managing expectations is so important. We shouldn’t expect parents to achieve all the things with a child that they would have done at school.
A lot of children are going to bed later and maybe getting up a bit later, too. It’s possible that they’re not using as much energy so being flexible is important. Also, I think being on-line a bit more is ok, too. Connecting with friends is important and they can support each other in this way.
In the summer holidays I would encourage children to build dens, put tents up or maybe even camp in a friend or family member’s garden. Something different to break up the days.
Clare: Force is a charity. How can people support you?
Paul: Our fundraising team are online and there are different challenges and events that people can take part individually or in family groups. If people had the inclination and the time, and wanted to check it out, that would be wonderful.
Clare: Paul, thank you so much for your time and expertise during this interview. There are lots of gems in there to give hope to people during hard times and we really appreciate you sharing them with us.
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