When you first meet Frances Ford you can immediately see why so many families facing the very worst experience imaginable have found immense comfort spending time with her.

Frances is without doubt a people person, radiating warmth, interest and calm, and these qualities have been appreciated by so many people, first in her private counselling practice and later during her counselling of bereaved families here at Hope House.

And it is for her eight years with us that Frances has just been awarded the prestigious Order of Mercy Medal for her voluntary work that has eased sickness and suffering.

Frances, who lives in Baschurch, first came to Hope House as a volunteer when the then partner in her private practice in Oswestry, Val Humphreys, was appointed as our first bereavement counsellor.

“I said to Val that I’d help out if she was snowed under and so began my volunteering,” recalls Frances.

“In my practice I had always said to people to give me what they could afford. I counselled people who couldn’t really afford to pay for counselling because I found they were often people most in need.

“We were fortunate that my husband’s business was successful so I could afford to volunteer and give back. It started with a day a week at Hope House, and then four afternoons, and then four days a week for eight and a half years.”

In those days, we had yet to open Ty Gobaith in Conwy, or our Sunstone Counselling Centre at Oswestry so Frances and Val were constantly on the road visiting families in their homes from Anglesey to Llandrindod Wells and from Chester to Ludlow.

“I counselled parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, because the whole family is affected when a child is ill,” says Frances.

“The lovely thing about Hope House is that the counselling is available for as long as it is needed and as long as families find it useful. Some families I saw a few times and some for much longer.”

Often Frances’s first meeting with bereaved families would be when their child was in the hospice’s Snowflake Suite – a temperature controlled room where families can spend time with their child after they have died and say goodbye in their own time and in their own way.

“I would go to their child’s funeral with them and just be there to talk to. That is what counselling is all about, not taking over. It is going on a journey with them, not taking them on a journey.

“They decide where the journey is going to and you are supporting them and listening to them and knowing when to leave them. That is important, that and them knowing that they can always come back to you at any point in the future. It’s a privilege to deal with people at what is the lowest ebb in life.”

One lady that sticks in Frances’s mind is a lady whose little grandchild had cancer and who was haunted by a memory of how ill she looked when she died.

“We discussed how once you have seen things you have a photograph in your head and you can’t unsee it, but what you can do is turn the page really quickly. So we looked at beautiful photographs of her grandchild before she became ill and then when the sad image popped up she was able to turn the page really quickly in her mind to the happier photographs,” recalls Frances.

It was Frances’s colleagues here at Hope House who nominated her for the League of Mercy medal. Jane Trevor, now our Head of Community Services, was the next counsellor to join the team and remembers how Frances mentored her in the beginning.

“As well as being incredible at supporting families, Frances had so much experience that so many of us drew upon in the early days. She was really instrumental in creating the way we work here today,” adds Jane.

That counselling service now has the prestigious accreditation of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Demand is such that there are now five counsellors at Hope House and four at Ty Gobaith, supported by six qualified volunteers and a placement student.

It was Jane who accompanied Frances and her husband to the presentation ceremony at The Mansion House in London, where the proceedings were overseen by the Right Honorable the Lord Lingfield, President of The League of Mercy.

“It was very grand with trumpets and high tea, and all the London Guilds represented,” says Frances with a broad smile.

“I was astonished. I simply wanted to help people in crisis and it was a pleasure to be able to do it. I was never interested in medals and accolades and never expected any, but I was thrilled to be nominated.

“So many volunteers are unrecognised heroes and most people who give their time won’t ever win awards. Hopefully recognising it in this flag waving, trumpet blowing way might encourage other people to get involved too.”

Caption: Frances receives the Order of Mercy Medal from the Rt Hon Lord Lingfield, President of the League of Mercy.