A SEAT AT THE TABLE WITH JOANNE SMITH
On the Front Line with FACT - Fighting All Cancers Together and the struggle amid Covid-19 as a non-government funded charity working to keep the ‘family’ together
Interviewing with Joanne Smith was no ordinary conversation, but then again this is no ordinary business founder. You see, Joanne not only heads up a truly incredible charity but her story is one that simply cannot be contained into one interview. So vast is her energy and astounding passion for her work I have already asked this amazing lady to come back and share her journey with us as an In The Spotlight Interview in a month or two's time.
A MATTER OF FACT
I discovered FACT - Fighting All Cancers Together when I saw a request on LinkedIn for volunteers at Christmas and turned up ready to do whatever I could for the day to help out. I left the centre that day with a lifelong memory of the most amazing, loving and pro-active group of people I had met in my entire life. I have never encountered a team, including the fact 'family' (the name given to its service users) so invested in each other's wellbeing and devoted to making change to everyone who meets them. I just knew I had to get to know the lady behind the business.
I interviewed Joanne two days before the UK government announced lockdown at her office space and we talked for over an hour, in all honesty, it could have been all day if it weren't for Joanne and her team having life-saving (literally) work to carry out. An hour felt like five minutes and it took exactly fifteen minutes for her to have us both in tears talking about her very personal journey and the reason this community-based charity exists today. What amazed me about Joanne and her team from a business point of view was their adaptation to an incredibly steep learning curve and their ability and willingness to pivot, adapt create and re-think, almost daily to respond the needs of their FACT family.
CANCER, COURAGE AND CREATING SOMETHING SPECIAL
Joanne's story begins when she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2005 on her daughters 2nd Birthday, she talks openly and candidly about not only her four and a half year medical struggle and subsequent treatment but also of the financial and emotional battles that lay ahead for her and her family. Joanne told me during our interview that for her, by far the hardest part of having cancer was watching other people having to cope with her illness and see her so sick and having her family growing up with a poorly mum, something she describes as 'torturous'. She talks about realising that her son, aged seven at the time of diagnosis was the only child in his school class with a mum who felt sick all the time, lost her hair and who, on one occasion, had to miss his birthday party because she was just too ill to attend. She talks about not being able to pick up and comfort her daughter due to consistent surgery and chemotherapy and the devastating social isolation faced by children in the same situation every single day.
Coming to the end of her four and a half year battle in which she received 'incredible' medical treatment, to which she credits her very being here to tell her story today, Joanne decided to take some action and give something back. She made the decision to start a small voluntary group to signpost families coming to the end of their medical treatment to local services to continue their emotional and physical healing. She began talking to people, discussing specific needs and wants and she got to work. That was until she started to attempt to signpost. What she discovered shocked her, she had hit a wall. Assuming that the services she was looking for weren't well advertised she looked further, and further again, sure that she was just missing a vital network somewhere but what she uncovered was that in actual fact there was little to no support in her local community.
A massive terrifying void.
She could find services 100 miles North and South but locally? Practically nothing. Knowing that she would have to go back to the people she had offered to help and tell them that unless they were able (knowing that many of them weren't physically up to it) to drive 200 miles they were out of luck just wasn't an option and so she made the decision there and then to provide those services herself.
She laughs when we discuss the enormity of that instant decision, Joanne openly will tell you that she had no idea of what that decision meant for her, all she knew at the time was that she wasn't prepared to let the people she had promised to help down, a decision that still echoes through everything FACT stand for today as a charity.
Starting with a telephone in her spare room which would cut off after five rings, she would find herself breathless, rocketing up the stairs several times per day answering calls to anyone who was looking for help during and post-cancer diagnosis. She offered assistance with everything from navigating benefit services to finding equipment to modify homes, she got involved in everything and anything that was asked of her. What came out of that time was the overwhelming realisation that people wanted to connect with others facing the types of issues away from the clinical setting of a hospital or treatment centre.
Joanne started to arrange small gatherings, a coffee morning here, a meet up there. A couple of families, gatherings of five or six people at a time coming together in a safe, homely and comfortable space where they could freely discuss the issues they were facing together. It was working.
Twelve years ago that community became the foundation of FACT as it stands today. It's no surprise that with a mission and passion as huge as Joannes that FACT has continued to grow and develop exponentially with a brilliant service centre, community hubs, nine charity shops across the region and services including counselling, complementary therapies, young person services, groups, meet-ups, financial advice and support and of course if required they continue to signpost to trusted outside services when required but where FACT really comes into its own is in their ability to pivot and adapt to the needs of its service users. Impressive in any business but more so when time really is of the essence. If someone comes with a need, they will go all-in to try to fill it. They know, first hand, that cancer affects not only the person with the diagnosis but everyone involved with that person, family, friends, colleagues, the list goes on and they offer support to them all. This is what Joanne lovingly refers to as the FACT family, the people they laugh and cry with every single day.
Running a charity, especially one without any government funding is understandably tough and I was keen to ask Joanne how she has coped with the massive learning curve over the last twelve years and how manages to hold it all together, especially with such a small core team offering such huge levels of support to anyone who needs their help. I mean, after all a Charity is still a business, You still need to run the business as a business and adhere to the usual rules PLUS the charity part!
Counselling services, social support, school support, education and awareness etc all come with their own set of regulations and Joanne is the first to say that emotionally, physically and mentally FACT face challenges on the business side every day and she credits her 'outstanding' team for their relentless efforts in the face of adversity to keep pushing through despite the odds. Being completely self-funded has, to some extent allowed for a level of freedom and flexibility and throughout Joanne has maintained the simple (but by no means easy) strategy of 'if a particular service is required, we need to raise the funds to make it happen' and this is how FACT still operates today just on a much bigger scale! Every time they raise their profile, they reach more people, which attracts more service users and on and on it goes. During our conversation, I am literally blown away by the level of dedication and sheer persistence shown to me just in the one hour we spend together and I find myself, even now as I write this in complete awe.
Listening to Joanne talk about the work they do it's obvious that emotions play a heavy part and I asked Joanne how she copes when times get tough and she told me the profound story of her and her daughter Molly delivering Christmas hampers to members of the FACT family. Spending the entire day driving all over the region delivering goodies to many families her daughter asked 'Is this the last Christmas those children will have with their Mum's and Dad's?' to which Joanne knew she had to answer honestly and explain that in some cases, yes and in others that it would be their own final Christmas. After much thought, her daughter, aged nine at the time said 'We must keep doing this mum, it's our thank-you for you getting better and for us still having you with us isn't it?' - unsurprisingly this is the point where we both cried during the interview (you can watch the interview in it’s entirety here). Joanne refers back to this story whenever she needs a reminder of her why in her business and it’s what gets her through the toughest of days and grounds her back into her incredible work. Personally, I can't imagine a better reason for carrying on.
FACT ON THE FRONT LINE.
Since our interview and the onset of Covid-19, I have watched online as Joanne and her team take on the ultimate pivot. Social restrictions mean a devastating blow to charities like FACT who's users rely heavily on face to face contact and they have had to once again re-think and re-work almost everything they do. Shops, community hubs and service centres are closed to the public meaning an even bigger, tougher drive to raise funds, still without any government support, in order to keep offering vital services in the community. Job roles left behind, the team have hit the road offering home deliveries of essential food items, kindness kits and supplies. Socially distanced doorstep visits to the most vulnerable in the community have become a daily occurrence, hundreds of miles travelled and items delivered and thousands of phone calls made and received. This is what it takes to support a network of people who desperately rely on the services FACT provide day in and out and I can't help but wonder what will happen if the tables don't turn for the Heroic team sometime soon. In the meantime, I pledge to continue to do all I can as a local community member and business owner to support and raise awareness of those on the front line, like Joanne and her team, giving their all, literally, for those they serve.