Updated: May 13
In 2019 I was invited to Rochdale Woman of the Year as a shortlisted nominee. I worked at the local special school teaching children with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities and so replied to say that I didn’t think I’d be able to attend. After much persuasion from the organisers, I came to the event with a friend who was also a representative trustee of Jolly Josh. Friends and family were unable to book the time off work and, in all honesty, even though I was incredibly proud to be nominated, let alone shortlisted, I don’t think any of us thought I’d receive the award. I was unprepared, I didn’t have a speech, no idea of what to say (for once) and it all seemed very bitter-sweet.
I founded Jolly Josh in 2017, exactly one month after my son Joshua passed away, he was aged 15 months. We’d had a turbulent year, though born seemingly healthy and meeting all milestones, aged 8 months old a brain scan showed that Joshua had experienced extensive damage, meaning he would be severely disabled. This is believed to be due to a metabolic condition called Mitochondrial Disorder (as highlighted in recent years on Coronation Street).
During Joshua’s Journey, we received the most amazing care and support from Derian House Children’s Hospice, but this was in Chorley, I needed a local support group, yet there wasn’t one. There was a huge gap in services within our Borough, so I decided to fill it and Jolly Josh opened with thanks to those who gave their support. It was important to me to allow parents to gain peer support from people who understood life with a disabled child, those who knew milestones are not a race and that that any development and progress is valued. Those who experienced a life in and out of hospital, those who had to learn and understand medical vocabulary and procedures. Those who felt alone as a parent/carer, even with an abundance of family and friends, those who have had to come to terms with the fact that their future with their disabled child is very different to how they imagined, with a long, never-ending set of challenges facing them.
In addition to peer support, it was important to me that Jolly Josh enabled families to meet professionals out of clinic, in an environment in which was less informal. Towards the end of his life Joshua had 23+ independent NHS professionals in his life, supporting his journey. I felt it beneficial that our families were introduced to such professionals, even if they did not require their support yet, because it may be that in the future they do and having met at Jolly Josh, a familiar face and prior meeting, may make a visit to clinic more emotionally manageable.
Jolly Josh opened exactly one month after Joshua passed away in September 2017. We gained charitable status in 2018 and upon our 2nd year anniversary we gained private sponsorship to embark on our dream, to construct a fully inclusive, accessible centre for families with disabled children. This venture has been incredibly difficult, work-life-balance- has been non-existent but the rewards are soon to be clear as we proudly open the Jolly Josh centre tomorrow!
My name may be on the award as Woman of the Year 2019, and thanks to Covid I’ve not had to hand over the title until now 😉 but there are numerous women that I proudly accepted this award on behalf of.
My Mum and Nan, for whom I have no doubt that I inherited my determination and work ethic from.
My daughter Sophie, who was a sibling carer and is now a bereaved sibling. Sophie has been my strength and my reason to smile in the darkest of times.
My Mother-In-Law, who raised a kind, caring and supportive son.
My female friends who have stood by me through the roller coaster ride that has been my love-hate relationship with the charity and the personal difficulties that 5 years of grief alongside endless voluntary work has brought.
My boss Melody Fierro, headteacher of Springside Special School who has been a huge supporter of the concept of Jolly Josh from day, Melody truly believes in inclusion.
My friend, co-teacher and Jolly Josh Trustee, Becky Drury and our incredible class team, who share my passion for enhancing the lives of children with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities.
The NHS professionals caring for Joshua, who also supported the concept of Jolly Josh, so much so that they became trustees of the charity.
Our small collection of imperative volunteers, Emma, Ann, Karen, Sarah, and Sajida who enable our charity to function.
Sarah Ford, our very first Jolly Josh employee, who is now known affectionately as ‘Sarah Jolly Josh.’ Sarah was recently thrown in at the deep end and has swiftly become my right hand woman, I have no doubt that in taking on the multiple roles which you have within our charity, that you have saved my sanity!
There are many special women sat amongst us now, but I’d like to thank three in particular. Sharon and Kathryn, and their families, gave Jolly Josh the opportunity to make a difference. They have not only supported our charity financially to create our ‘place to call home’ but they have lived the Jolly Josh concept, day in, day out, since we began to make plans for construction. I have no doubt that they, like me, have often wondered what we started and questioned the time-consuming effort which has impacted on their families in recent years, and now Alison takes on this challenge too. However, tomorrow we intend to make Sharon, Kathryn, Alison, and their families proud as we open our centre to create a Jolly Josh community for families with disabled children. I personally want to thank them for putting their trust in me to make Jolly Josh a success and for welcoming me and my family to theirs.
Finally, to the Mum’s I have met along this journey, dreaming of inclusion for their disabled child/children, to those Mum’s who provide medical support and nurse their children, to those Mum’s who know the heartache of regular hospital admissions, to those Mum’s who are possibly facing child bereavement and those that are already grieving. This award for ‘Woman of the Year’ was for you!
Thank you to Springhill Hospice for providing me with the award, my co-nominees were as worthy.
I’m feel empowered to be amongst so many inspirational women, and I’m pleased to pass on this award which will continue to credit and give gratitude for the outstanding work being achieved within our Borough.
Huge congratulations to this year's worthy winner of Rochdale Woman of the Year 2022, Sarah Fitchett!
Photo Credit: Rochdale Online, Claire Flett
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