Last December I visited a charity that is very close to my heart: Acorns children’s hospice.
I had the privilege of chatting, telling stories and reading some of my poetry to an inspirational group of children and families. . And they performed some of their poetry for me.
For me this is real. I’ve lost two members of my family, and another couple have come close to the edge
I have over the past 10 years met many children and young people using the services of this West Midlands charity. We have shared our love for poetry, talked about the importance of caring for all living beings, and our love of cake, music and Aston Villa football club.
I am so inspired by the kids, and I also have an enormous amount of respect for the people who work there. I want to hug and kiss them, I want to tell them how much I love them, but I just shake their hands and act normal.
Not only do they care for these kids, some of whom are not expected to reach adulthood; they also look after their mums, dads, brothers and sisters, even grandparents. The existence of children’s hospices is something many of us feel uncomfortable with – most people tend to associate hospices with older people. I was one of them, until I first visited.
Those working and volunteering there do everything they can to make special memories for the children and their families. I have rarely been to a place where love, happiness and joy were so abundant. I have never felt a hint of doom or gloom.
I’m not one of those who call these times weird, strange, difficult or unprecedented. They are, but I’m a vegan, animal rightist and environmentalist, so I thought a crisis such as this had to happen at some time. But since the start of this pandemic Acorns’ 600 or so children and young people have been on my mind. I am told most of the families are shielding their children at home, understandably doing everything to avoid them being infected with coronavirus.
It was said that the illness is generally mild in children, but there is now evidence that children can be affected in ways the experts are only beginning to understand. This horrifies me. We all know the risks for adults with serious underlying health issues, but what about children and young people? With the emergence of a “Kawasaki”-like Covid-19-linked disease, I can only imagine how difficult it is for these families. They have to protect their precious children when services they rely on are no longer available, and when they are cut off from so many people who’ve been been part of their support network.
We’re all beginning to know more about what is happening in adult care homes, but I wonder what is happening to children’s hospices all over the country.
At Acorns’ three hospices, members of the public are turning up every few minutes with car-loads of donations. We’re lucky to have such a giving society here in the UK.
The staff are also reaching out to families through regular calls, letting them know they are not alone at this scary time.
Over the course of this global emergency there have been times when we have seen the virus infect the rich and famous, powerful and influential, and humble world leaders. But as with all emergencies, it’s the most vulnerable members of our community who get hit the hardest.
I have just signed a letter addressed to Boris Johnson calling for an independent public inquiry into the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black and ethnic minority communities, because for me this is real. I’ve lost two members of my family, and another couple have come close to the edge.
I can’t stop thinking about the kids at Acorns. I can’t stop thinking about the elderly and the infirm, the young and vulnerable, the homeless, the families caring for a seriously ill baby or child.
Once this terrible chapter comes to an end, what will the next chapter have in store? I would like to think we will retain the strong sense of compassion and community that has been so in evidence during this crisis, and try to turn our backs on division, deprivation and inequality. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?
• Benjamin Zephaniah is a poet