6 Jun

Reaching for the Stars

Surrey Occasions editor, Claire Mahoney, speaks to Karen Sugarman, director of fundraising for the Surrey-based children’s hospice charity Shooting Star Chase.

Having afternoon tea with Dame Joan Collins and being thrown a party by Simon Cowell. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. But for Karen Sugarman it’s all in a day’s work and has a very vital purpose: that of raising the annual £10 million that keeps the Surrey-based charity Shooting Star Chase going. Shooting Star Chase came about following the merger of two children’s hospices in 2011: Christopher’s in Guildford and Shooting Star House in Hampton.

Today the charity provides support to over 700 families with children diagnosed with life-limiting conditions. The support can vary from in-hospice care, day care, end of life care to bereavement counselling or just allowing parents to have a rest.Karen became director of fundraising in 2013, having worked for the charity for 14 years and recently celebrated 30 years in fundraising. Although she describes her role as, “the best job in the world,” a job in the charity sector wasn’t her intended career path. In fact she began her career working at the BBC. Then out of the blue her mother became seriously ill.“She just said one day. I don’t feel well. So she went to the doctor who just told her that she probably had the flu and to go home and rest,” recalls Karen.

It turned out that she had ovarian cancer. She was 49 years old.“We were told that it would be best if my mum went into a hospice. But I was completely against the idea and wanted to care for her at home. But my mum said that she wanted to go and when we visited the place she said to me: ‘Isn’t it beautiful here.’ As soon as she arrived there she went into a coma straight away. It was as if she could finally let go. Seeing how she was looked after and how it helped her made me decide then and there that this is what I needed to do.”

Inner strength

By the end of that same month Karen was working as a volunteer for Cancer Research. This was in 1986 and Karen was still in her early 20’s and there was further heartbreak to come. That same year her brother was involved in a car accident and her aunt passed away. It wasn’t long, she says, before her father died of a broken heart. She had to dig deep, but found she was far more resilient than she had perhaps thought. “You soon discover that you have some inner strength that helps you get through these things.

ss2But the main thing it taught me is that your life can change in the blink of an eye.” What her experiences have also given her is a unique empathy and insight into the overwhelming emotions that affect all family members when a close family member’s life, particularly when its a child, is shortened by illness. “Seeing families that have been where you have. You know their pain and it’s a physical pain that you feel for them. But you have to be incredibly strong for them. You have to be professional and put the families first. Of course, I’ve shed more than a few tears over the years. You would have to be a robot not to. But this is about their grief not mine.” Caring for a child with a serious illness is emotionally and physically draining. So both hospices provide families with the option of a short break, whereby the family can either stay with their child at the hospice or just have a night of rest by themselves.

They also provide one of the largest hospice at home service in the country. Nurses and healthcare support staff will make regular visits to the children at home to allow the parents to carry out simple tasks such as popping to the shops, taking a nap or even having a bath. Shooting Star Chase does indeed take care of the whole family, including brothers and sisters and grandparents. Dedicated siblings groups feature fun activities and opportunities for children to explore and share their feelings in a safe environment. In fact, David and Samantha Cameron’s children, Nancy and Elwen, received bereavement counselling at the hospice after the death of their brother Ivan in 2012. The care does not stop after a child has passed away.

Hospice staff provide care and support for as long as the family need it. Celebrity patrons The ethos of the hospice is to try and help the children and their parents find as much joy as they can in the remaining time that they have left. And Karen has over the years managed to attract some very special patrons that have brought the children just that. Not least Simon Cowell. Karen met Simon in 2001 and he has been a strong supporter of the charity and its work ever since. “Simon was made vice president of the charity in 2015 for his years of incredible support. He is so amazing with all the families and regularly visits the hospices – he doesn’t make a big fanfare about it either. He does so much for us.”

Other big name supporters and patrons include, singer Tony Hadley (Vice President), TV presenter Phillip Schofield and singer and radio presenter Michael Ball. “Michael did a concert for us a few years ago at Feltonfleet School and we raised £75,000 just in one night.” Then there is the actress, Dame Joan Collins who regularly invites families to her home for afternoon tea and recently accompanied Karen to visit a child when she was undergoing an operation in hospital. All this demonstrates that the charity’s patrons do get involved on a deeply personal level. Home life When she is not at her offices in Weybridge, those local to the area will probably catch Karen out on one of her daily power walks or driving around in the white Mitsubishi bearing the Shooting Star Chase branding.

“You can’t really miss me,” laughs Karen. Her home is in Cobham. She moved there 12 years ago. “Once you have lived there you never want to leave.” She enjoys spending time in Bronte’s artisan cafe, or enjoying some me time in Blushers Hair Salon or the Nail Spa.

But she sees no big dividing line between her work and her private life. “Sometimes there is no real difference. Even if I go out to dinner with friends there will always be someone there who wants to know more about the charity. I feel blessed to work here with so many amazing people. I don’t think I could ask for a better job.” It doesn’t look like the charity could ask for a better person to do that job either. For more information about Shooting Star Chase and how you can donate or volunteer, visit the website at: shootingstarchase.org.uk