The arrival of March brings us all to a sense of where we are in the passage of time. The unmistakable and unforgiving shrill nip in the air, bursts of yellow daffodil trumpets re-emerge popping up in our gardens, on verges and in woodlands and the countdown to Easter begins.

March is also a time when the world is asked to recognize the role women play, thanks to various calendar days and public events that behold the wonder of women here on earth. In 1975 the United Nations officially recognized the first International Women’s Day, March the 8th. Since then the idea has developed to include the entire month of March, with America marking it ‘Women’s History Month.’

In this month, one which is increasingly being recognized in the UK we are encouraged to take note of, rediscover and share what we know of women, notable and ordinary. Celebrating Women’s History Month is particularly significant here at Cherry Trees as we think about womens’ achievements both recent and past.

Recently we learned that our charity’s original founder, the very person who conceived the idea of respite breaks for children with disabilities, had passed away. Dr Helen Foley MBE, our International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month here in this corner of Surrey, is dedicated to you. Creator, originator, believer, pioneer and friend.

It has been in Helen’s passing that we have been given the chance to learn so much more about her. Through collected and shared memories we have seen her anew thanks to the many tributes, messages and sentiments shared with Cherry Trees.

You might wonder who Dr Helen Foley was? Helen supported children with disabilities and their families across five decades, stretching back into the 1970’s. From playgroups, to toy schemes to establishing highly successful charities, a life’s work given to children’s health and social care services here in Surrey.

Not many people know this, but it was Helen who founded both Challengers in 1979 (now situated in Stoke Park) and then just one year later in 1980 founded Cherry Trees. Supported by a group of parents and doctors Helen recognized way back then, that families with a child with disabilities needed a break, help, and support. One tribute reads “She was absolutely the driving force of Cherry Trees since the beginning, there right from the start” whilst another “…Helen was a very unique person. She was a woman vastly ahead of her time and a very forward thinker.”

It has been this sense of Helen being light years ahead of others in recognizing the gaps in local support services and then doing something about it that makes her a real woman to appreciate this Women’s History Month. Around all her endeavours in setting up local support services she also worked as a Consultant Neurological Paediatrician at The Royal Surrey County Hospital. Helen was an experienced and popular professional, loved by many of the families who came into her care. And it is now in looking back that we realise her work touched thousands of families over the course of time.

Helen’s strength of character and her way of making things happen has been the stand out quality in the tributes flowing into Cherry Trees. Determined, forward thinking and modest, a woman who knew what needed to happen and had the courage to make waves in a very different world back then. Her legacy to us now? Helen’s spirit remains alive at Cherry Trees in all that we think and do to this day. The conviction that we need to see the ability in children and then to create a place for them to flourish is the life force for much of what we do. RIP Dr Helen Foley MBE (24th February 1937 – 31st January 2021).

Banner image: credit Monica Melton @unsplash images