“Don’t let the word hospice define what you think we do.” – Emma Aspinall, Acorns Director of Care

Emma Aspinall is the Director of Care for Acorns Children’s Hospice. She is responsible for ensuring the charity continues to deliver the highest possible standards of care.

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

Emma’s career journey began with a Youth Opportunity Programme in building. When that ended she found herself applying for a temporary position at Erdington’s Wilson Stuart School. 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’ve always worked with children and families,” explains Emma (52). “That’s 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.”

After looking into Acorns, Emma realised there were many similarities: “It’s 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.”

Established in 1988, Acorns provides specialist palliative care and support for children and young people with life limiting and life threatening conditions – conditions which mean they are unlikely to reach adulthood.

The charity’s first hospice was opened in Selly Oak, Birmingham, by Diana Princess of Wales that same year. At the time it was only the third children’s hospice in world. The Black Country hospice, in Walsall, followed in 1999, with Acorns for the Three Counties, in Worcester, opening six years later.

Emma joined the charity in 2003 as Community Team Manager, with the Worcester hospice still under construction.

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,” Emma remembers. “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 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.

Emma’s dissertation, for which she received a distinction, explored how Acorns could expand the service to the other hospices should there be an appetite from NHS health care commissioners. There hasn’t been to date, however Acorns is flexible and responsive to the changing needs of families and in 2014 developed an outreach service which provides support to families in their homes delivered by a teams of nurses, carers and trained volunteers.

After two years as Head of Care, a new opportunity arose: “The then Director of Care made the decision to leave,” Emma says. “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,” Emma explains. “Now we’ve 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. Coupled with family support services, day care and care in the home, and costs are rising.

Currently, Acorns needs nearly £10 million a year to provide its vital care for children and support for their families. And with medical advances meaning children with more complex needs are living longer, the figure will only increase. So too will expectations for care staff.

“There are more children with different complex needs and things that were seen as specialist are now becoming standard,” Emma explains. “And we’ve needed to respond to the changing needs of the children. We’ve 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’ve always done at Acorns, be a responsive service to meet the needs of the children and their families,” she adds.

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

Emma’s vision also includes a more integrated approach with other statutory organisations. To that end, Acorns has embarked on a new partnership with Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

“The children’s hospice movement is a unique movement and we are a voluntary organisation that couldn’t operate in isolation,” she says. “We do need to have very clear links with our local partners and colleagues. We need to be working as a seamless service with our colleagues across the statutory sectors and with other voluntary organisations, to make sure at that first point of contact families don’t feel like they’ve got to have a battle or coordinate services.

“We’re making some great steps at the moment with Birmingham Children’s Hospital. We’ve got our very first partnership nurse – she’s the bridge between the two organisations.”

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’s certainly not what defines it.

“Don’t 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’re bright, we’re 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 the UK and the world’s largest children’s hospice charity – as measured by the number of children receiving Acorns specialist care – you can find Emma tackling half marathons and 10km runs.

“I’m not an athlete, I complete rather than compete,” says Emma. “It’s also about health and wellbeing. If I’ve had a really difficult day, it’s been an emotional day, to go out and have a run is a really good way of destressing – 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’s 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.”

To find out more about Acorns, please visit www.acorns.org.uk/30years