It's been almost two years since a heartfelt appeal was launched to save the much-loved Acorns Children's Hospice.
It had been announced in June 2019 the Walstead Road centre in Walsall could close due to rising running costs, a drop in donations and a shortfall in central government funding.
The news sent shockwaves across the region as families expressed their dismay. Staff faced losing their jobs and families from across the wider West Midlands were concerned they would lose respite support.
But a month later there was hope. Initial support meant the site could stay open until April 2020 and a pledge to double NHS funding by 2023/2024 gave more certainty for its long term future.
It prompted the launch of the £2 million Save Acorns Black Country Hospice Appeal, supported by the Express & Star, in an effort to fill a funding gap and keep the vital centre running.
News that the hospice's future was in jeopardy prompted an outpouring of support from people across the Black Country and beyond.
It saw people being covered in baked beans, running marathons, organising bake sales and skydiving – doing whatever they could to help.
And now their monumental efforts have led to Acorns' Walstead Road hospice being saved, to the joy of hospice staff and families in need.
More than half of the £2 million appeal has been raised by public donations, despite the coronavirus pandemic. And today it has been revealed that emergency funding from the government linked to the lockdown has helped take the fund to its target.
The Walsall hospice, like others run by Acorns, remained open throughout the pandemic, allowing care for children to continue every single day despite the impact of Covid-19.
Advice and support continued to be given to families with volunteers not able to visit the hospice doing their bit by calling families, delivering food parcels and essentials, and even dropping off Christmas presents direct to the doorsteps of families supported by Acorns.
Another major announcement by the hospice was in memory to Isabella Lyttle – whose story inspired so many people to donate – with the arts and crafts room, which she loved, being renamed as 'Isabella's place'.
The schoolgirl, from Walsall, passed away in April 2019 at the age of 11 after an eight-year battle with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer she was diagnosed with aged three.
During her illness she visited the Walstead Road hospice for short breaks. But months later the future of the much-loved hospice was in jeopardy as it was left facing apparent closure.
Her parents Mark Lyttle and Jennie Dalton, still heartbroken from the loss of their beloved daughter, were left reeling by the decision and decided to do whatever they can to save it.
Mr Lyttle, speaking to the Express & Star after hearing news that it had been saved, said: "Words can't express how happy we are really, from where we were around 18 months ago with this. We always knew deep down it wouldn't get closed – it just needed people to know they needed some help that they've been providing us and other families.
"It was devastating news then but now we're overjoyed – it's brilliant. It was a huge shock for everybody and I remember, I had not long lost my daughter Isabella, not long at all, and I went into a shop and saw the front page of the Express & Star. I've never done a double-take in my life, but I thought 'that's Acorns on the front'.
"It was more the worry of what really it meant if it closed – how can anybody go through what we've gone through, a place which gave Isabella and us so much – and not just when she passed away but for many years, how can someone not have that love and support from Acorns? It doesn't bear thinking about it.
"The love, care and support they've given us – through some really tough times and through the good times as well – has been incredible. It's not just end of life care either, what they give to our children who deserve everything when they are going through what they're going through, what they give is amazing. You can't imagine there being no Acorns.
"I just didn't see any other way it wouldn't survive if people knew what they do for us – it's not something they shout about. They're very dignified in their approach to care."
Mark said it had been tough soldiering on only months after losing his daughter but he expressed his gratitude at the people who had jumped out of planes, ran, had a cake sale and raised money through a number of events for Acorns.
And, for himself, it was Isabella's strength – her ability to always have a smile on her face – which allowed him to continue fundraising in order to save the hospice.
He said: "It's just a fantastic thing now and we have to thank everyone and the Express & Star who got on-board and supported it all the way through, sharing the stories and covering events – and look at where we're at now.
"We're just overjoyed and there's just so many people to thank, not least and the Acorns Board as well for listening to us and that was a hard decision for them to make in the first place. They listened and they've been brilliant. We went to their board meetings to say 'give us a chance' I know everybody will be behind this' and they did.
"They had to think about stuff, children and the building, and obviously the level of care – if that dropped and that could never happen. Isabella, we lost her just before this and she gave us the strength – I didn't think I was able to do it.
"What Acorns have given her is incredible. She wasn't fussy, didn't want any bother and she was so incredibly strong. When she was alive that kept us going. We had tough times but we had her by our side and we fed off each other's strength – I always say I don't think she gets enough credit for that.
"People say 'you're so strong' but it's all from Isabella. She went through a hell of a lot, every cancer treatment, and she always had a smile on her face. It was the worst time of my life, but we were able to – in her honour and memory –say 'this is what Acorns gave to Isabella and us and family, and friends, and she deserves all of the credit'.
"Thankfully the other families and everyone else got behind that and supported the campaign. For me, personally, I will always be part of the Acorns family – that's what they tell me every time – and we lost Isabella, but they are always checking up on me and inviting me down. I've been through some dark times – and still am – but they are still there. They've done this all the way through and they've picked me off the floor and are still doing it now. That's another reason why it couldn't close."
Isabella spent most of her time at Acorns in the crafts room – which Mark described as her favourite place – and in memory of her, Acorns chief executive Toby Porter has announced it would be named in her honour.
Mark added: "The crafts room, it was Isabella's favourite place – it was a running joke, actually. If we were staying at Acorns and someone came to visit, they'd ask 'where's Isabella?' and they'd try the crafts room and she'd be in there.
"We've got so many happy memories – she was a very arty and crafty girl, there was always glitter in my car and in my beard. So the crafts room was a happy place for her and even now I can go back there.
"When I think [about what's happened] it's very quickly swallowed by darkness – you're not going to have that again. But with Acorns, it doesn't and I'm so so pleased about that. It could've spoiled it and we made a lot of memories there. I was overjoyed when Toby emailed me – it was a lovely email – so nice and caring and asking for permission to do that.
"I was waiting for that and it's testament to Acorns – they know us so well. I had been waiting to ask them for ages but I didn't know how to ask – it wasn't just Isabella's so I was like 'I can't ask, it's not fair'.
"They didn't provide care just for her and Acorns has got together and thought about it and it's really an honour and a privilege. It's so touching – he said 'we've never done this before' and I can't wait to see it. It's more than a fitting tribute to Isabella.
"Isabella is the reason why a whole of a lot of people got involved because they had the same experience we had. Acorns has helped so many people for so many years which they don't shout about. They needed us to champion them – they had their hour of need as we did."
Now the future of the hospice is secured, the focus is now on refurbishing all of the children's bedrooms in the building, something which hasn't been done since Acorns opened in Walsall in 2000.
The improvements had to be delayed when the future of the site, with Acorns hoping to launch a fundraiser specifically for the bedrooms to make a difference to the children and families staying there.
And like all charities, Acorns – despite no longer facing closure – is reliant on fundraising, and has called on people to keep lending their generous support to ensure they can continue offering help to those in need.
'This is a victory for people power'
It was at the very start of the campaign – a month before the appeal was launched – when support started to gather to save the much-loved hospice.
A petition was set up in response to the proposed closure by Emma Barton, which clocked up more than 33,000 signatures online.
It was an outcry of support the Walsall mother, whose daughter Esme Tucker uses the hospice, had expected knowing how important the hospice is.
Emma said she was surprised, however, at how much momentum it gained as more and more people started to back the campaign prior to the appeal launching.
She said: “I was absolutely amazed by the news it’s been saved. I’m delighted for every single child and every single family who relies on Acorns’ support.
“And I’m delighted for everyone who contributed to the campaign to keep it open through fundraising, through sharing stuff on social [media] and even signing a petition. People power can make a change with a collective noise and action – it’s really encouraging to see.
“At the time I set up the petition you feel it’s a bit of a last resort, a desperate measure. You set up a petition and you hope it works – and it’s really encouraging that people can make a difference, like how Acorns makes a difference to each family.
“I’m delighted for the families who’ve yet to even come into the Acorns bubble and I’m delighted for the continuation of care for the exisiting families that are supported – and chuffed to bits that everybody contributed to this. It’s a victory for everyone.”
“I think people really got behind it and there’s been such a lot of support at the local level from individuals who have gone over and above and it’s just incredible. Every person involved at whatever level needs to feel proud.”
Ms Barton’s daughter Esme, now aged 15, was born with hypothermia and hypoglycaemia. She was later diagnosed with a chromosome condition known as partial Trisomy 14 and tests also revealed she had Cri-du-chat syndrome. as well as having metabolic issues.
Emma, aged 45 and from New Oscott, said she was hesitant at first when Esme was referred to Acorns due to her believing she was accepting her daughter’s life would be over if she joined a hospice.
But her pre-conceptions were soon challenged – and were changed – after she saw it was a “place of life and love” and saw the warmth and “amazing” levels of support the hospice offered.
She added: “We’ve had a lot of support from them and it’s not just about the child and what they’re going through, Acorns has a holistic approach for the whole family and my other children have benefitted – it’s just been amazing.
“It’s helped massively, so there’s the practical support – so respite – and there’s the emotional support in dealing with the things you don’t want to deal with, like having a plan for end of life and knowing that safety net is there. It’s about not facing the unknown and having some sense of control.
“And the support for the whole family has been incredible too. Siblings often get overlooked – they’re not the ones dealing with the condition – and it does have a knock-on effect on the whole family. I’m not giving my younger children the attention [they need] and it has a huge impact and there’s support in place for them."
Support has been real 'outpouring of love'
Acorns' deputy head nurse Carmel Caldicott has praised the "outpouring of love" by communities who have pulled together to save the vital Walsall hospice.
Mrs Caldicott said the announcement the Walstead Road centre could close was difficult for staff, and for families, due to the close relationships they had made.
But now, almost two years on since the start of the appeal, the hospice's future is safe – with fundraisers, businesses and other people who got involved being praised.
She said: "I'm totally made up about it as you can imagine. When it first happened it was like a bereavement – because staff have worked with the families for so long, some children had been here since birth, and saying goodbye to some of those children and transferring their care to someone else – it's such emotive work.
"We built up relationships with those families and it was really like a bereavement so this news now is amazing, it's just a shame we're in lockdown because we want to celebrate.
"I've always known the Walsall and wider community are so giving, there's a big community spirit in Walsall, I knew they would be so helpful, but the problem was not as many people knew about Acorns. So when we were on the front of the page [of the Express & Star] they came out in force and it really has been so wonderful.
"I'm not surprised at all by the reaction – the outpouring of love for us here, especially in the first wave of the pandemic as well, was incredible. Throughout lockdown the amount of different and diverse communities that would just come and drop food off, gifts for nurses, has been amazing.
"Part of what we want to do now is to nature and develop that love and as a thank you, continue to provide and develop the excellent care they fought for."
Mrs Caldicott also became involved in the campaign – having taken on several runs to raise funds for Acorns as well as the 24 miles in 24 hours challenge, raising £3,500 in June last year.
By October the same challenge was undertaken by every single member of staff at the Walsall hospice decided to take it on themselves, with night staff walking around the building to do "their bit like the community have done".
She added: "I'm sure the families will be absolutely delighted by the news. I think we're the only children's hospice to have remained open during the pandemic, and people have said if we weren't here if we would've closed and those children they wouldn't have had that support.
"I think we're really looking forward [to getting more families back in] and the only thing stopping us is the pandemic. We're looking forward to getting it to how it was before with play groups, garden parties and events and hopefully we can welcome them back in a safe way knowing that these events won't be the last ones."
'Honour' to be part of appeal to save Acorns hospice
Long-time supporter of Acorns Andy Street has said it had been his "honour" to be involved with the campaign to save the much-loved hospice.
Mr Street has been fundraising for a number of years – taking part in half-marathons and other events – all to support the charity's incredible work.
It led to the West Midlands Mayor, who supported Acorns before being elected, being named as the patron of the hospice's urgent £2 million appeal.
He said: "I've done a few runs, some half marathons, for them before. I've been involved with Acorns as a charity before this appeal and I've been round their Selly Oak facility, so I've seen the phenomenal work they do – and the point is that there's no-one else really doing the same thing they are. They are providing a vital service and it's such a life-changer for everyone involved.
"It's just brilliant and exciting news because this goes back two years and it seemed unthinkable that it should close. Now the news it can stay open is just a wonderful moment for everyone – it's a really positive story.
"Back in 2019, when this was happening, we had the tragic death of Isabella and we talked with her parents about this [the hospice closing]. We launched the appeal and I agreed to be patron and we thought this was a big target – but I thought the generosity of the people of the Black Country people would see us through.
"It's a phenomenal effort and all credit to the people at Acorns – they've done good work with everything, but overwhelmingly, it's a story of the various supporters who came together. I think it was never in doubt actually."
And Mr Street, aside from his fundraising runs, sat down with Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight as part of a special event in March last year – before the Covid-19 lockdown – at Birmingham Council House.
The event saw the duo chat about Acorns and their plans for filming studios in Birmingham, their reasons for backing the Acorns appeal, as well as take part in a question and answer session with the audience – with the money raised bringing the total at the time to £660,000.
Acorns chief executive Toby Porter said at the time the event was a "prime example" of the pair's willingness to save the hospice as he thanked everyone involved with the event.
Mr Street, reflecting on the event, told the Express & Star: "Steven's such an inspiring man and I let him take centre stage. It was incredible throughout – and the turnout was incredible. It said a lot about Acorns – it has touched so many people's hearts.
"I'm not surprised it's been saved – I always knew it would happen. I'm incredibly proud of how local people have come together and got involved. I wasn't surprised because we knew that was there – it just needed the supporters to be galvanised and the Express & Star deserves for doing that credit as well.
"We had examples of young people bringing small amounts of money in a collection tin and you just know then it's captured people's imagination – there was every form of fundraising which occurred. It was incredible."
Apart from the monumental news the hospice will remain open, it was announced the arts and crafts room would be named in memory of schoolgirl Isabella Lyttle who loved being there during her visits to the Walsall hospice.
Mr Street met with the Isabella's parents early on in the campaign – as they discussed how to save the much-loved hospice – and he described the move by Acorns as being an "appropriate" tribute.
He added: "I would describe it as appropriate. Isabella's story inspired people – both because of what she did herself and what Acorns did for her in her short life. It's lovely and appropriate and I think the family did an incredible thing to allow their story to be told because that inspired other people. It was a very generous thing."