The working life of a director of care

Categories: Featured and People & Places.

Emma Aspinall is the Director of Care for Acorns Children’s Hospice in the West Midlands. Here she tells ehospice about making sure the charity continues to deliver the highest possible standards of care.

When Emma left school at 16 to become a builder, little did she know she would become the Director of Care for a leading children’s hospice some 36 years later.

Emma’s career journey began with a Youth Opportunity Programme in building. When that ended she applied for a temporary position at Wilson Stuart School in Birmingham. She made such an impact that she was offered a Youth Training Scheme with the school – and so began her love of working with children and families.

“Apart from the short time after leaving school, I have always worked with children and families, that has always been my focus.”

Emma progressed from Wilson Stuart to employment in residential and children’s homes, earning A-Levels and a Diploma in Social Care along the way. But it was while working at Barnardo’s, in adoption and fostering, that a position at Acorns Children’s Hospice became available.

“I have to say, I would not have considered it had it not been for knowing somebody who already worked for Acorns – they told me to consider it.”

“It is about caring for children and supporting the families. My previous work at Barnardo’s was working with disadvantaged children; children that needed a secure family base, supporting new families to actually manage some of the difficulties. That was very similar to Acorns; helping families deal with challenges, supporting them to make sure the best outcomes were achieved for the children.”

Emma joined the charity in 2003 as Community Team Manager. The opening of Acorns third hospice in 2005 saw the charity rapidly expand and it soon became evident that its centralised management model no longer fit the organisation. Emma’s role as head of the community team was put at risk.

“I was very distressed at that time. It was change. I was working with a team I felt really passionate about but I was equally as passionate about Acorns. I thoroughly enjoyed being the community team manager. It was a great team to work with; the staff were so dedicated.”

The restructure brought with it career development opportunities and Emma was promoted to one of the three new Head of Care posts, taking the helm at the site in Worcester. With a Degree in Social Work now under her belt, Emma also began working towards an MBA.

Supported by Acorns, it gave her the chance to “focus on key learning opportunities that could benefit the organisation”, in particular the charity’s Hospice at Home service – specialist nurse-led care delivered in family homes across the Black Country.

After two years as Head of Care, a new opportunity arose: “The then Director of Care made the decision to leave. I was advised that I should put my hat in the ring and I was lucky enough to get it.”

That was 10 years ago. As Director of Care, Emma’s primary role is to ensure Acorns continues to deliver high-quality care. And, with the hospices rated ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ by the Care Quality Commission, Emma is understandably proud of the achievements of Acorns dedicated specialist staff and volunteers.

But, she admits, there is more work to be done. This year saw the official launch of Acorns new three-year strategy. Entitled Making Every Day Count, it outlines the charity’s commitment to reaching even more children.

“When I first started there were 350 children in our care, using around 20 beds. Now we have got more than 870 children in any one year using 30 beds. The hospices are busier places.”

This, she says, is due to an increase in demand for Acorns specialist services. Children attend the hospices more frequently and for shorter stays, along with family support services, day care and care in the home, and costs are rising.

“There are more children with different complex needs and things that were seen as specialist are now becoming standard, and we have needed to respond to the changing needs of the children. We have also raised our expectations for our staff and ensure we invest in their training and development, while also working closely with the parents who are experts in their child’s care

“What we need to do is what we have always done at Acorns, be a responsive service to meet the needs of the children and their families.

“Similarly, expectations about where families access services are also on the agenda and has been for a number of years. That is where I see us going; being a responsive service going where the child needs us and where the family can benefit from us.”

Despite Acorns very best efforts, the word ‘hospice’ still creates some resistance among families. While end-of-life care is a key service delivered by Acorns, it is certainly not what defines it.

“Do not let the word hospice define what you think we do,” Emma advises. “Being a children’s hospice means so much more than what you assume a hospice is. Acorns is a place where we put children first, where we will support the whole family.

“Acorns is a place where you can come and be yourself and use us as much or as little as you like and we will always come from the point you are at. Keep an open mind. We are bright, we are colourful. We have lots of sensory opportunities for children of all ages. You can drop in, you can stay overnight, you can come for a meal, for a swim, but just feel that you can come and be yourself.”

When she’s not overseeing the quality and development of care at Acorns you can find Emma tackling half marathons and 10km runs.

“I am not an athlete, I complete rather than compete,” says Emma. “It is also about health and wellbeing. If I have had a really difficult day, it has been an emotional day, to go out and have a run is a really good way of de-stressing – feeling the sun or the rain and the wind in your hair just makes you feel so much better.”

Fittingly, Emma also lists her work at Acorns among her passions, as those who know her can attest.

“Acorns is a precious place,” she beams. “It is a precious and valuable place to work because it is making a real difference. It makes a different to children and families every day and our teams are some of the most compassionate and warm people you could ever hope to meet. I think those two things make Acorns a really special place.”

For more information visit Acorns Children’s Hospice