Sara Bennett

Getting Personal

an interview with Sara Bennett

It’s probably not customary to start a profile piece with the end of the interview but as I parted from meeting Sara Bennett of Balloons for the first time, she bestowed upon me a great big comforting, heartfelt hug. Having been in her company for a mere hour I doubt I’m fit to claim to know her (my interview skills aren’t that good) but I certainly got a wonderful warm feeling from the moment I met her, a first impression that proved true the more I found out about her and what she and the charity she runs, does.  I’ve no doubt I’m not alone either – when she talks about her colleagues they certainly don’t have an exchanging pleasantries by the water cooler kind of relationship – she describes a mutual kind of love for one another and one where they look out for each other and are mindful of how each other are feeling. “It’s just the kind of people we are” she drops in without a second thought - one that I find completely profound in light of what it is they do.

Balloons was established in 2007 by a group of healthcare professionals that found that there was nowhere in Devon that was able to provide specialist support to children and young people experiencing profound loss. They support the bereaved and the pre-bereaved (whose significant person in their life has a terminal diagnosis) from age 5 through to 25, and last year alone they supported 167 of them with one to one therapy and by offering them follow ups of free-to-attend activity days with peers who have had similar experiences to themselves. The children they reach often have quite complex circumstances, bereavements caused by suicide or sudden death, or with other factors like domestic violence or drug and alcohol misuse.

Sara has been the CEO now for 4½ years, a role that suits her perfectly as someone who describes herself as a ‘doer’ and as someone who doesn’t shy away from ‘emptying the bins on a Friday’ because heading up a small charity is a pretty hectic 'all hands on deck' kind of business. And a business that sometimes needs her 6 days a week.

After she has shown me around some of the tools the grief support workers use to help engage the children, including mini treasure chests that they can decorate and then use to fill with special keepsakes to remind them of the person they have lost, tiny drawstring bags of ‘worry dolls’ that the child can use to ‘tell’ their worries to at the end of the day for them to ‘look after’ and a cacophony of crafting materials, she sits down to generously tell me everything I want to know about what it means to be the part of Balloons that when faced with a child or young person who for example, this week: is primary school age or, like their sibling, also still at primary school, and is facing the imminent death of their mother from cancer, thinks “this lady will die, regardless of what we do or don’t do, she will die. So, what difference can we make? The difference we can make is being there for her children.”

Could you tell me how you came to be in this role?

I was working at the University and had been for over 15 years in various roles. I’m moving into the twilight my career now and I guess I had to decide... do I stay at the university, that I love….or  is there one other job for me to do for the next few years before I finish? And I just thought I had one more thing in me – I saw this vacancy being advertised and there was something about it that drew me. I wanted to go back to the charity sector, I think it’s my spiritual home.

What was your background then?

I started my career back in the 70s as a teacher working in a school for what was called ‘troubled children’ in those days, who had been expelled from mainstream education, and I loved it.

I love the idea of making an intervention with a child at the point of great stress that could maybe help them to take a slightly different path after that might be more positive and constructive for them and their families and their communities.            

The statistics are shocking:

7 out of 10 men in prison had a profound traumatic bereavement as a child.

That shows us where we might end up if we leave these children unsupported. We know that if we wrap care around the child when they are at their most vulnerable, they will have a better chance of a positive outcome, and I find that very compelling.

Can you tell me about your typical day at Balloons?

I try to manage the days so that I roughly know what I hope to be able to achieve, but again in a small charity it’s all about a delicate dance between what I know I want to do, and that might be a report to a funder or going to meet a company who have just taken us as their Charity of the Year or going to speak at a meeting, all those things are crucial but in a tiny charity, it’s all hands on deck. We’re all picking up the phone, we’re all supervising our volunteers, we’re all meeting the families on our family days. So that cushion that some CEOs in larger charities have, their office at the end of the corridor with the door closed, that’s not true and that suits me. I’m naturally nosy! And I’m naturally inclined to get my hands dirty and to be involved in every aspect of the charity’s work. And I hope that makes me a better CEO because I am immersed in not just the policy making and strategic thinking but also in the coming out of a room having talked to a child whose mother is dying, and how that makes you feel. And I can touch that, absolutely. There’s no remove for me and I hope that’s a strength. It wouldn’t be for everybody and some days I think “Oh Gosh” but for me it’s what I love about being part of Balloons. I know a lot about what goes on, I’m not distanced from any of it. I am so lucky to work with a dedicated and committed team of staff – who all feel a strong connection to the mission of Balloons, like I do, and want to be that difference for the children and young people we seek to support. 

And how do you deal with that side of things?

We’re all human and we can all imagine the pain of something like that. That’s not a bad thing. I’m in clinical supervision, so that I stay safe. I know where the right place is to take my feelings. I would say I sob through some of my clinical supervisions actually and that’s fine, and that’s right and that’s proper. You know, if I stopped feeling it, I’d stop doing the work. So feeling it isn’t a problem, but taking the feelings to the right place is what I have a responsibility for. How do we do it? More than anything we all have the children and young people in our sights. That’s why we’re here. We can’t make their lives different, but we can help them to live their lives well despite the trauma of tragic loss. If we walk away from it, it’s still going to happen. I feel much better that it’s happening with us alongside them.

What’s the best bit about your job?

It’s getting the feedback from the children and young people. And I’m particularly mindful of that at the moment because I’ve just done a piece of research with clinical psychology students at the University of Exeter. We got some of our clients from some time ago to talk about their memories of their support with us and what still resonated in their life. And that’s been an amazing piece of work and just so exciting because basically what that they’re saying is it still matters. We still remember it, we still hold it in our hearts. We still use it. I still go through my sleep routine. How amazing is that? So the best thing about my job is knowing not just that we help in the moment but that that help is sustained. And I think that’s incredible. It’s the individual stories, they're the best thing. Because if you think of Balloons as a big picture that’s made up of the little pixels, every little pixel is a child, and every child matters. So yes, it’s the individual stories that’s the best part.

And the worst?

The individual stories! The worse thing for most of us is working with children who have very few support structures in place. And your heart just dies a little for them. Because what do we want for children? We want them to be loved, nurtured, protected and encouraged, that’s what we want for kids isn’t it? And to work with children who have never had that… never been told that they’re loved. Never had that nurture. I find that hard. Because I guess I just don’t want that to be true. But it is true. So that’s the hardest thing. If we’re working with a family that has some protective factors in place – loving parents, grandparents, foster parents whatever there’s always hope. It’s so hard when that isn’t there, and that’s the child’s reality. I find that quite heart breaking and those are the kids you lie awake at night and worry about. That’s the hard bit. So sometimes the reality is we just have to stick with the difference we can make, and it might be small but it doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. But sometimes I feel fearful, for some of the children. And I find that difficult. But I take that to Clinical Supervision! And I work on it!

Can you tell me about your relationship with Devon Community Foundation and how you’ve found working with them?

Well I’ve been in the post for 4½ years now and had contact almost from the outset with DCF. And I have to say, and I’m not just saying this, it’s very, very positive. I think two things have happened. One is that we’ve been able to access small pots of funds. And that’s absolutely fantastic for a charity like us. The The second thing is that we have been invited to meet the Trustees on a couple of occasions, speak at some events and generally have been given the opportunity to talk about our work and raise the profile of Balloons.

Do you rely on grants?

Yes. We only get funding from two sources – grant income and generous donations from local businesses and individuals. We don’t currently receive any statutory funding. We don’t get funding from anywhere else. The only funding sources we have, we don’t generate our own income, well not in any meaningful way. We don’t have a charity shop, we're not selling anything so we apply for grant funding and we are incredibly lucky to enjoy the generosity of local businesses and individuals, two women ran the marathon for us this year and those small but significant amounts of money add up. We just met with BT today, the Exeter branch, they’ve chosen us as their Charity of the Year. So we are just setting up a donor relationship with them which is going to be brilliant I’m sure. But all of that is quite time consuming, so we do need the occasional couple of grand here and there without many strings attached to it otherwise we would struggle. And that’s what DCF does for us. It’s a simple application process which is appropriate and proportionate, I think we have an honest relationship. I think DCF understands us. I think they value us and respect us and that’s reciprocated. So the DCF, it’s not one of these funders where you have to jump through a thousand hoops to get £500. It’s a grown-up relationship, I think that’s how I would describe it and I think that’s really important.

To find out more about the Balloons charity visit their website here