Reverend, Architect, CEO: meet the driving force behind Francis House Children’s Hospice

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“The hospice sucks you in,” says Reverend David Ireland. “I came here to help build offices for our parent charities in 1986 and I have never left!”

He was told by his employers at the time not to spend much time on the job because there was no profit to be made. But for David it was just the beginning of his Francis House story and he tells me he has never been away from the place since.

The first thing I notice when I meet the CEO (aside from his unabating enthusiasm) is his dog collar.

Ordained in 1995 as a United Reformed Church Minister, I learn over the next two hours that faith remains at the core of the hospice’s philosophy and is a key part of its development.

This is unsurprising given its history, which is firmly planted in the Catholic Church’s children’s work.

Need for hospice care

Sister Aloysius founded Francis House Children’s Hospice in the 1950s. She was appointed to Didsbury where the Sisters, working within the Catholic Children’s Rescue Society, cared for children in a large children’s home.  

This work steadily developed to provide respite care for children with disabilities who were with foster parents and it soon became apparent that a number of these children had a short life expectancy. 

The need for a hospice for children in the north-west became clear and a separate charity was set up – for people of all faiths or no faith – to support parents who have a child with a life-threatening or life-limiting illness.

The CEO explains that Francis House came right at the beginning of the children’s palliative care movement, “we were the fourth children’s hospice in the country,” he recalls.

With little backing, it wasn’t possible to start afresh with a ‘new build’ and so the Sisters generously gave up their convent to be converted.

Drawing on his architectural training, David was a key player in the design of the building and work commenced in December 1990, with the hospice officially opened by HRH Princess Diana on 25 November 1991 .

David proudly tells me that the job cost just £1.25 million, a comparatively small sum at the time.

Hospice capacity set to double

Francis House currently has capacity for seven in-patient beds, but the opening of the new young adult unit – Francis Lodge (again designed by David) – will see the hospice capacity doubled.

But the picture David paints of the last 24 years is one of a rollercoaster journey, full of financial difficulties – at one point he explains that the hospice was unable to pay the next months wages.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, David (already in place as a trustee) decided he would also get involved with the finance and fundraising committee – on a voluntary basis of course.

During my visit we get a tour of Francis Lodge, the new young adults accommodation, which is a large extension of the existing building.

Despite the ‘building site’ appearance, David’s vision shines through as we dart around the vast space, the CEO enthusiastically showing off the range of new facilities, which will include variable height wash basins, a recording studio, a cinema room and accessible gardens

This is a man who is clearly passionate about his work, and his passion is reflected in his rapid personal development at the hospice, from architect to trustee and finally in 2005, to the role of CEO.

He is a man who comes with no ego and appears to require no credit for his extraordinary efforts. The focus is always on those in need and the development of Francis Lodge has been no exception.

Stephen’s story

David tells me the story of Stephen Ryan, a teenager who wrote to the trustees at the children’s hospice in 2009 to say he wanted to be cared for in an adult environment. 

His muscle-wasting condition meant he found himself to be increasingly isolated and he eloquently argued the case for a facility specifically for teenagers and young adults.

His letter told trustees how he needed to spend more time at the hospice because his deteriorating condition was making it harder to keep in touch with friends using his computer. Stephen who had Spinal Muscular Atrophy died within a few months of writing the letter, aged just 21.

But despite Stephen not being able to benefit from new facilities for young adults, his request was not in vain and almost a year later in 2010, his sister Tanya, who has the same condition, cut the ribbon officially declaring Francis Lodge open.

The hospice had secured a four-bedroom house rent-free for three years – as an interim measure – to accommodate the needs of young adults. It was ideally situated just down the road from Francis House and preceded the new £3.5m extension opening today.

Accommodating young adults

David says that the ‘trial lodge’ has offered staff and young adults the opportunity to carry out much-needed research, test out equipment, age-appropriate activities and even staff rotas in the strictly parent-free zone.

“We’ve introduced a twilight shift,” says David. “The young adults want to stay up all night, lay in all morning and have a bacon sandwich at 2 o’clock in the afternoon! We need to be able to cater for that.”

The new build, which began in 2012, will see more young adults able to use the facility.

In 1996 the hospice had only one child over the age of 16 using the hospice, but in 2014, Francis House currently has 87 people over the age of 16 on their role.

 “It’s become an issue around the country.  Many hospices can’t cope with the amount of young people needing palliative care,” David says thoughtfully. “We talk about transition a lot, but there is nowhere to transition to.”

David emphasises the difficulty of putting upper age limits on young adult units such as Francis Lodge, “because where is there to go once they reach that age?” And so Francis Lodge has chosen not to have a limit. “I don’t think it will go on forever,” he adds, “many grow out of it, or move on.”

A growing organisation

Francis House currently look after 250 children and young people, with the addition of parents, siblings and grandparents.

“If you take into consideration all our services; inpatient, home care, bereavement etc, we support after around 1200 people –  we’re a growing organisation,” he says.

And with increased numbers, comes a requirement for more staff – and staff with suitable skill-sets, able to care for the young adults, as well the increased complexity of illnesses they are seeing.

But how will this increased need affect the running costs?

“With the new build we will need £4.6 million per year to survive. We get 15 or 16 % from government funding, but that’s a lot more to raise,” he says.

David’s only grumble is that children’s hospices should be treated much more like adult hospices: “If we could get a third of our money from public funding we would be quite happy.”

Interestingly, David appears very uncomfortable about treating the hospice as a commercial venture when we discuss the future and the possible need to ‘sell services’ to the community.

For now, a vast network of volunteers, which include Clergy and Nuns as well as a recent fundraising campaign with the Manchester Evening News, are helping to meet the rising costs.

“Accounts had their first ever paid member of staff on January 1st,” David says with a twinkle in his eye.

Something tells me that whilst Reverend David Ireland is in charge at Francis House, Francis House is going to do just fine.

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