Dr Helen Foley, MBE

24th February 1937 – 31st January 2021

We are sad to announce the news to our supporters, families, friends and community that our wonderful, dynamic and determined Founder Dr Helen Foley, MBE has passed away aged 83.

After being contacted by her family we wanted to make her death known, owing so much to her, a pivotal person in creating our charity from the outset.

Dr Helen achieved so much in her lifetime and it is because of this that numerous charities working with children with disabilities across Surrey are marking her legacy. A former Consultant Neurological Paediatrician at The Royal Surrey County Hospital she is remembered as a compassionate and understanding doctor. Her intense interest and concern for families and children in her care went beyond just medical issues. She recognised, well ahead of others at the time, that children with disabilities needed opportunities to play, have fun, learn skills and make friends, just like other children, an ethos which still runs through all that we do at Cherry Trees.

She was also all too well aware of the pressures on parents of ‘her’ children and that they needed more support. She saw the problems and did something about them. She was the driver for the setting up of many organisations including:

  • Cherry Trees (1980- Present): short break respite care for children with complex disabilities.
  • Challengers (1979 - Present): inclusive play for children with disabilities.
  • Opportunity Playgroup (1974 – Present): playgroup for children that were outpatients at the children's unit for play and observation, St Luke’s Hospital.
  • The Toy Library (1976 – 2009): outpatient toy scheme at St Luke’s and then The Royal Surrey County Hospital.
  • Equipment for Disabled Children (1990 - Present): Providing equipment for children with disabilities.
  • Special Needs and Parents, SNAP (1993 -1997): support group for parents.

Dr Helen was always very modest about her own role in getting these charities off the ground but she was in practice a force of nature in making them happen. She got parents together to help, found donors and sponsors, influenced anyone she could, pulled strings, persuaded and persisted. She never gave up and was undaunted by what looked to others like potentially serious obstacles. And she remained involved with these charities for many years after setting them up.

Establishing any one of these important local charities would have been a significant achievement. To have been instrumental in setting up so many is a truly marvellous and unique legacy. Many children and families in Guildford are deeply grateful for all she did for them. Dr Helen was appointed an MBE in 2015 for services to children with disabilities.

Cherry Trees is a unique charity in terms of its service provision, history and ability to support children with a range of complex disabilities and is a much loved organisation in the local community. Celebrating over 40 years of supporting families, all of our efforts to this very day rest in the impact and the commitment of Helen early on.

When reflecting on our founder, Cherry Trees CEO Claire Bryant says:

“Dr Helen Foley was a truly inspirational lady. I have nothing but admiration for her determination and drive to improve the lives of children with disabilities and their families. She was such a compassionate lady, always so grateful to hear about the children at Cherry Trees and the developments of the charity. It became one of our traditions to ensure that each year the children made her a Christmas decoration; a small thanks for the indescribable impact she had on so many lives, each year she wrote of great thanks for the gift.

Helen left such a remarkable legacy and engrained child centred ethos at Cherry Trees of ‘Child first, Disability second’, something that resonates through all of the charities she founded.

We were all so very sad to hear that Helen had passed away, it’s rare to ever meet someone that has directly improved the lives of thousands of people, providing them with a true lifeline. We are grateful that her legacy, drive and incredible motivation to help improve the lives of the most vulnerable children and their families will always be central to everything we do.”

A memorial to cherish Helen’s life and work will be included at Cherry Trees in the coming weeks so her memory and all that she did for us is never forgotten. Our thoughts, support and good wishes go to her remaining family at this time.

Photo credit: John Harris


Never forgotten and touched so many hearts in her life, tributes shared about Dr Helen Foley MBE: 

Helen was a very unique person. She was a women vastly ahead of her time and a very forward thinker. During my time at Cherry Trees she was always very positive and encouraging particularly regarding developments that enhanced the lives of the children at Cherry Trees. I always looked forward to her visits, her company and her particular “wicked” sense of humour, sometimes at my expense.

Helen was driven and unwavering with a tireless desire to help others who were less fortunate and many families have Helen to thank for her creative mind and problem solving skills. She identified a problem that families had coping with children who were disabled and set up an organisation that provided assistance.

There is no doubt that I know where Helen is at this moment and I am sure that she will be organising the angels and keeping them very busy.   Peter Davey - Former Head of Care, Cherry Trees.

Helen and I first met as mums at the school gate.  Our sons were friends and swapped play dates.  At that point I had no idea she was a doctor.   As I came to know her better I realised she was a very busy paediatrician with, like me, three young sons.

When my fourth son Ben was born, he was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome.  Helen was one of the first people to visit me stressing that she had come as a friend and not in a professional capacity.  Helen gave me such practical help whilst Ben was alive, telling me about the Opportunity Playgroup which became an absolute lifeline.  The hour of sudden freedom twice a week was very heady.

After Ben died and my other three boys were off to school Helen asked me to become involved with Cherry Trees which was being set up in the next village.  At first I was just organising the driving rota to Pond Meadow School. I knew many of the children who came to Cherry Trees through the Opportunity Playgroup, and, having recently lost a child, it was just the right thing for me at the right time. 

Since then, Cherry Trees has been a lifeline for me in, I am sure, unintended ways and I shall always be grateful to Helen for giving me the chance to be involved with such a hugely rewarding enterprise.  Trudi Harris – MBE and Cherry Trees Patron

Very sad. She did so much for Cherry Trees over the years and was always so determined to achieve what seemed to the rest of us like very daunting aspirations. She just wanted the best for our children. Ann Taylor

She certainly had spirited determination and an unshakeable desire to always put the needs of her patient, the child, first. That must be why the parents were so fond of her. What a fantastic life’s work. She was absolutely the driving force of Cherry Trees since the beginning, there right from the start. Cathy McMullan – Trustee and Former local GP

I ran the ‘Opportunity Playgroup’ for 25 years, Helen was an amazing support to me and made such a difference to so many children and their parents.  Everyone found her extremely difficult to say 'No'to.  She used to tell the Hospital chiefs that they needed to take notice of these children as they would be pushing their wheelchairs in time! Jan Wilkinson, former school friend, Leicester.

As a parent with a disabled child I felt I had the closest thing to wrap around care for my son, my family and myself. She never took credit for all the things she set up - she would say ''aren’t people marvellous- I tell them about things the children need and someone helps". They did help, we all did and we had a brilliant conductor. A woman way ahead of her time and so inspiring. I think she was just marvellous. Camille Juliff

I first meet Helen over 30 years ago, I was invited to attend an interview for the role of Head of Unit at Cherry Trees. Her devotion to children and young adults was very apparent. I was lucky enough to train at Great Ormond Street Hospital  whose motto was 'Children first and always'. It was a privilege to work with such a caring person. My condolences to the family at this sad time. May you rest in God's care. Gina Penrose nee Baker (First Head of Care at Cherry Trees, 1986).


Thank you to everyone for all the initial tributes thus far. 

Banner image: Unsplash, credit@ @farrinni