'A safe haven from the worst news any parent has to bear': Sir Michael Parkinson praises Maidenhead hospice as it marks 15th birthday

2022 marks a special year for Alexander Devine Children's Hospice Service as it celebrates its 15th birthday. The charity was founded back in April 2007 in the wake of a tragedy and has gone on to help countless families facing the hardest of times. The Advertiser will be running a series of features on the hospice this year to commemorate its milestone. This week we heard from Sir Michael Parkinson, a close supporter of the charity since its inception, about his involvement.

'A safe haven from the worst news any parent has to bear': Sir Michael Parkinson praises Maidenhead hospice as it marks 15th birthday

Sir Michael Parkinson with Fiona Devine

"It is the sort of event that usually destroys people and families but in the case of Fiona and John Devine, it was transformational."

It is not often that something special is borne out of tragedy, but in the case of a Maidenhead hospice - which is celebrating its 15th birthday this week - that is exactly what has happened.

Since their son Alexander sadly died in 2006 from a rare brain tumour, parents Fiona and John made it their mission to ensure others experiencing the same would be given a helping hand.

Without a dedicated children's hospice in Berkshire, their world was consumed by hospital appointments, overnight stays in hospital and long drives in the car to access specialist care.

One year later, on April 25, 2007, the Alexander Devine Cancer Trust was established, later known as Alexander Devine Children's Hospice Service.

Fiona and John's efforts caught the eye of legendary broadcaster and TV personality Sir Michael Parkinson, who lives nearby and took a keen interest in what the couple were planning. 

"In a career stretching back over too many years than I care to admit, I have met and interviewed thousands of fascinating and impressive people, renowned for excellence in their chosen field. It was, bar a couple of occasions, a hugely enjoyable occupation," he explained. 

"However, it is not an exaggeration to say that one of the most significant meetings of them all was with a young woman from Windsor who, when I first met her, had the demeanour of a church mouse but, as I discovered later, possessed the heart of a lion.

"Until the tragedy that would change her life, she was a committed and skilled carer for the elderly and looking forward to starting a family with her husband, John.

"Alexander duly arrived but then every parent’s nightmare was realised when at the age of four he was diagnosed with a rare and untreatable brain tumour.

"It is the sort of event that usually destroys people and families but in the case of Fiona and John it was transformational.

"They poured their shared grief into the formation of the Alexander Devine Children’s Hospice Service.

"Its mission was to ensure that children like Alexander would have the care they needed as well as providing a safe haven from the uncharted waters of the worst news any parent has to bear."

Two years after the charity was founded, the hospice was able to fund its first nurse in 2009, while in 2012 it was officially registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

A year later, Sir Michael helped launch a capital campaign to build Berkshire's first children’s hospice, with the first spades planted in the ground in 2015.

In June 2018, Alexander Devine Children's Hospice Service opened its doors to its first child, with an official opening ceremony taking place in December that year with then Prime Minister Theresa May and Sir Michael.

"Fiona became the driving force behind the charity and that’s where I came into her life," the former TV presenter continued.

"We raised money by asking good friends of mine to do cabarets and public appearances while making our case to anyone who might be interested or helpful.

"At the same time I saw a young woman, so fearful of public speaking grow into a self-assured, mature and inspiring leader of a charity with an engaging manner and a persuasive style.

"She became a natural fundraiser. As a result, the charity prospered. After first building a comprehensive community service we then opened, in 2018, our children’s hospice building in Maidenhead - a triumph for all concerned.

"The charity is 15 years old this year and when I visit our hospice I see it as an example of how local community goodwill and generosity comes together to produce an important building and community service whose purpose and significance to our society should be celebrated and seen as a symbol of triumph over adversity.

"But it’s also a reminder to me of how much has been achieved purely from the reaction of one extraordinary woman to a dreadful, life changing event."

As with many other charities, Alexander Devine has had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the past two years, but it was still there for those who needed it despite the lack of fundraising income.

And as the hospice enters 2022, it has plenty planned to mark a milestone year in its history, including a dedicated birthday party in June.

It is also hoped that its popular fundraising events - such as the Heaven Sent Ball - can take place in full this year without the threat of social restrictions. 

"COVID arrived and like all of us, the charity and its vital service has had to adapt in the way it operates and provides its specialist care and support," Sir Michael said.

"But as we slowly emerge from this ordeal the hope is that we can drive forward in an unfettered way, build on the great work to date and complete the vision Fiona had 15 years ago.  

"There is much to be done and no one knows better how to do it than Fiona Devine.

"All I did was help her achieve her potential and it has been a rare privilege doing so."

Supporters can leave a birthday message for the hospice by clicking here, and for more information on the 15th year milestone, click here

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