“My biggest joy is seeing families reach milestones they’ve been told were impossible.”
When Maria started working for Noah’s Ark Children's Hospice as a Family Link Worker, she was initially concerned about the nature of the work. She’d never worked with children with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions and nothing can prepare you for the UCLH oncology ward which she encountered on one of her first family visits:
“I had a bit of a wobble that first time. I wasn’t sure whether I could do it. The first thing I saw was a ward full of young boys with no hair.”
Nevertheless, she had the strength to overcome this initial shock. Maria’s background is in education - a career known to build resoluteness. But, her passion was always supporting whole families and that’s how she came to be working in Enfield supporting vulnerable families before her current role at Noah’s Ark.
Over time, Maria has felt honoured that families have allowed her to join them on their journey. That initial trepidation has evaporated and she has felt stronger and stronger. Despite that, she still has to make a conscious effort to separate her home and work lives because having her own children makes it especially important that she doesn’t bring her work home with her. However, her job has enabled her to educate her own children and that’s given them a new appreciation of what their mum does.
Maria feels that it’s so important to build a family’s resilience – she wants to help families, but even more than that, she wants them to be able to help themselves. She talks passionately about one family who she’s worked with over a number of years: “Originally the mum would call me all the time for everything. I supported her with housing, got other professionals involved and spent a huge amount of time providing emotional support, particularly after she had another baby who died. But over time, it became less and less because she was increasingly confident and I no longer needed to hold her hand. Now she only calls me if there’s something urgent – it’s been quite a transformation.” For that family, it was not only about building resilience; often her mere presence was critical. For example, Maria would look after the child to give mum the time to leave hospital and go home for a shower. This wouldn’t have been possible without her help.
Although much of her role involves less glamorous, but no less important, tasks such as helping families to fill in forms, one element of her role that brings both enormous responsibility and great joy is her involvement in choosing which of our families get to go to Disneyland Paris through the Magic Moments charity. She knows the happiness that it will bring but also recognises that it can only happen for a very few families. She says that making that choice "feels like I’m Santa Claus. It’s the best phone call anyone could ever make".
For all the joy she can bring, Maria recognises how hard it is when children die. Noah's Ark provides post-bereavement support for up to three years and that’s vital in helping families to work through that initial period. That time can be professionally rewarding too, such as the recent occasion when Maria was invited as the only non-family member to the funeral of one of the children who she had worked closely with.
She stresses the importance of enabling young people – both Noah’s Ark-supported children and their siblings – to have their voices heard: “I was recently working with a 13-year-old who does all of the translating for her family, where English is not their first language. She told us that she just wanted to be a normal 13-year-old. That’s why, working with her personal volunteer, we organised for her to go out for some sushi. It might not sound special to us, but it meant the world to her.”