Debbie Dunne is one of the team members who organised the event ‘SAZ 5 FEST’ in memory of her daughter, Sara Emma Jones, who died suddenly on 19th March 2009 of pneumococcal septicaemia, just 2 weeks after her 18th birthday. Debbie has been chosen to receive a Child Bereavement UK 21 Champions Award in recognition of her fundraising endeavours, to ensure that other parents receive the support they need after the death of their child.
At the time of Sara’s death, her sister, Steph, was 14 and her brother, Chris, was 12, both at very difficult stages on the road to adulthood. How on earth were they to deal with the magnitude of this grief at such a vulnerable age? We needed help. I just presumed, as the worst thing that you can experience in life is to lose your child, that there would be plenty of support and it would be government funded. How wrong was I?! We were devastated, and I felt that, as a family, we were in a sinking ship and, without sounding melodramatic, none of us was in any fit state to help each other. As Sara’s mum, I was all-consumed in my grief when my children needed me most. The influx of people coming to pass on their condolences was overwhelming for my children; but of course, we did appreciate the people who braved our door. Their home was now filled with deep sadness and many tears.
Chris coped less well with the intrusion and all the awkward questions, and quickly ran back to school after 3 weeks. I don’t think anything prepared us for how difficult school life would be. On his first week back, he was pulled up in front of the class for not handing in his homework. I was seriously shocked as Sara had been a former pupil there, and the teacher was fully aware of the situation.
Steph returned nervously in June, she was of an age where she knew that there would be many questions and awkward stares. She arrived home with the news that she had to copy all the work that she had missed from the 19th March. How on earth does a 14 year old heartbroken girl cope with all of this, as well as the daily homework she received in preparation for her GCSEs? She also had to deal with the drama of daily school life. They then both had to return home to the absence of their sister and grieving parents. There were teachers who were exceptions, and for their help and support we will be eternally grateful.
Child Bereavement UK offers invaluable bereavement training to all professionals in the education sector. I am sure with the correct staff training, most of the situations they both found themselves in would never have occurred. I attended many meetings with the school regarding my disbelief with the way situations were handled. Things went from bad to worse, and it quickly became apparent that my children needed professional support in sibling bereavement.
The head of pastoral care, who was aware of both Chris’s and Steph’s situation, contacted me and offered us a lifeline in the form of an angel called Richard Stafford. Now working for Child Bereavement UK, he was working for Chrysalis, a charity funded bereavement counselling service, at the time. Richard walked into our home and instantly recognised that I, as a central member of the family, also needed support in order to comfort and support my children. Richard counselled me, Steph and Chris, and even continued to come long after the funding for Chrysalis was withdrawn.
I describe 19th March 2009 as our 9/11, as it was a catastrophe to my family; for Sara to lose her life so very young is something we will truly never recover from. Yet with the right help and support, we have slowly learnt to live again; without that help, I don’t know where we would be today. Our lives are very different now, but still very meaningful. Richard’s help and listening ear were an invaluable part of our slow road to healing and recovery. We were just so lucky that we got him – I just feel that Sara sent him to me.
In September 2013, Sara’s good school friend, Steph Inman, approached us with her idea for ‘Saz 5 Fest’ to celebrate Sara’s life and donate any money raised to our chosen charity. I rang Richard, only to be informed that Chrysalis was no longer, but luckily he was now working for Child Bereavement UK, which at the time of Sara’s passing wasn’t available in our area. Luckily for the Halton area, a new CBUK office opened in Runcorn in March 2014. The planning of the event started, and was to go ahead on 9th March. I wouldn’t say that it was easy; it took 5 months of intense and constant planning. The fun run was held at Cronton College, the college that Sara attended, which kindly granted us permission to hold our event there. The ticket price included a Saz 5 Fest t-shirt, a memorial band, entrance to the after-event with food and drink included and, very importantly to us, information leaflets on septicaemia and Child Bereavement UK.
Sara’s employer (the Kelly family) very generously volunteered their premises and a free drink to every participant. People kindly donated raffle prizes, money, precious time and support to the event. The whole day embodied Sara from her favourite colour purple, to butterflies, to her favourite lyrics and film quotes, the most prominent quote to embody Sara being ‘Live every moment, laugh everyday and love beyond words’.
Yet another angel walked in to our lives; her name is Lisa Thomas. She messaged me offering her own signed Bale football shirt for us to auction. She then quickly made the decision to set up a Justgiving page in memory of Sara, which was linked to Twitter. All money raised went straight to CBUK. Lisa worked diligently on the site, writing to football clubs and players in hope of receiving donations. I contacted someone that personally knew Sara and works for Liverpool FC; he very kindly donated a signed Saurez shirt plus many other items. The donations began to arrive and the auction began; the site went global almost instantly. Lisa was being tweeted through the night with interest in the auction items.
9th March arrived. We were all very nervous, we had never done anything like this as a family. 170 participants arrived for the event. DW Fitness Centre in Widnes kindly came to warm up the runners. The atmosphere, in the words of many, was very loving and beautiful. The balloon release was a special part of the day, with personalised Saz 5 Fest balloons sold for £1 each. The after-event at Bar Reef was a great success, with a stall selling merchandise that embodied Sara and entertainment such as a magician and a live musician. Everyone involved, including family and friends, donated their time and services free of charge. The feedback was extremely positive and we feel very proud, as Sara’s family and friends, that we managed to actually pull off the event without any hiccups.
The staggering figure raised at the end of all auctions was £10,433. The fun run included a donation, thanks to Barclays employee Craig Fegan, of £1000. We chose to donate £2200 to Shropshire Cerebral Palsy as they support my great-niece, Beth Sara Whittaker. We also donated £100 to Claudia’s Cause; Claudia was a little girl, who had a brain tumour and sadly passed away in November at the tender age of 8.
The final figure donated to CBUK was just short of £12,288. I hope this goes a little way to making some difference. I would like to think that some good has come from Sara’s passing, and I truly hope that CBUK goes from strength to strength. I always thought these things happen to other people, but it happened to my daughter, it happened to us. The personal rewards that come from fundraising are extremely satisfying as you know your selflessness is helping others at the darkest points in their lives.
All we can do is look for silver linings in even the darkest of clouds.