A woman who heals broken hearts
She's our Inspirational Woman of the Year. And Shelley's story – like those of her brave and indomitable fellow finalists – will bring a tear to your eye
13:35 GMT, 15 November 2012
They included a bereaved mother who helps sick children, a tireless environmental campaigner waging a personal fight against cancer and the first person with a double lung transplant to sail across the Atlantic.
And on Monday night, they came together at a star-studded gala to be honoured at the Daily Mail’s Inspirational Women of the Year awards.
Two months ago, we asked you to nominate the incredible women you know who go the extra mile for other people and show how life should truly be lived.
Strong women: Inspirational Women if the Year finalists Justine, Shelley, Pam, Clare and Andrea with Samantha Cameron at 10 Downing Street. Finalists' clothing by George at Asda
From thousands of entries, we whittled them down to five finalists who were invited to London to meet Samantha Cameron at No 10 Downing Street before being whisked off to the ceremony where one of them, Shelley Gilbert, was named our Inspirational Woman of the Year.
Mrs Cameron said: ‘It was humbling to meet the finalists — they have such incredible stories to tell and it was an honour to spend time with them all. It is very deserving that they have been celebrated and their amazing accomplishments have been highlighted by the Daily Mail.
‘Many congratulations to Shelley for winning. Having experienced the importance of grief counselling myself I know how beneficial it is for both parents and siblings.
‘Her dedication to the cause and the amount of people she has reached is awe inspiring.’
After their meeting with the Prime Minister’s wife, the five finalists attended the awards ceremony. At a gala dinner, they were celebrated by celebrities such as Craig Revel Horwood, Kara Tointon and Olympians including Katherine Grainger, Anna Watkins and Sarah Storey.
Darcey Bussell, ambassador for the awards’ sponsors Sanctuary Spa, presented the winner with the main award and the 5,000 luxury break prize — which Shelley immediately gave to one of the families she helps.
Here Femail tells these women’s truly incredible stories, starting with our most inspirational woman of the year, Shelley Gilbert.
The bereaved children's champion
Shelley Gilbert was watching a young boy intently painting a picture of his mother — all bright yellow hair and pillar-box red mouth — when she knelt down to tell him how good it was.
The youngster suddenly became serious. ‘My mummy had cancer,’ he explained solemnly. ‘I didn’t see her the day before she died and it makes me sad. If I’d seen her she would still be alive.’ Shelley sighs. ‘He was only five. He’d just lost the wonderful mother he adored and was blaming himself. I shudder to think what would have happened if he hadn’t spoken those words. He could have carried that guilt for the rest of his life.’
Inspired: Samantha Cameron expressed her awe at Shelley's dedication
Thankfully, the boy confided his pain in just the right person. Shelley, who runs a charity called Grief Encounter, was able to gradually teach him to stop blaming himself. Over time, through months of one-to-one counselling and meeting other children who were fighting — and overcoming — the same feelings, the little boy started to smile again.
‘I know that little lad will always grieve for his mum,’ says Shelley, 49. ‘But, without that terrible burden of guilt, he can begin to build a happy life.’
In Britain, a child loses a parent every 30 minutes. Thousands more lose a sibling each year. Their pain is unimaginable. And, until very recently, it went virtually unacknowledged.
But in 2003, Shelley decided to change all that. She knows only too well the devastating effect that grief can have on a child. At the age of four, she lost her mother to breast cancer. Five years later, her father died of a heart attack. Her world collapsed, but relatives were so swamped by their own sorrow they didn’t know how to comfort the little girl in their midst.
That’s why, as an adult, Shelley decided to set up Grief Encounter, which provides support for some 4,000 families a year through its dedicated telephone helpline, counselling, workshops, and residential camps.
'I've had grief counselling and I know how beneficial it is for both parents and siblings. Shelley is just awe-inspiring'
Every young death is a tragedy,’ says Shelley. ‘Some seem almost unbearable. I took a phone call recently from a mother. Her son had died — he was only six, and he’d been killed in a freak accident with an airgun on a family holiday.
‘I knew him and his two brothers very well because I’d helped the family when his father died, also on holiday, two years earlier.
‘Now this desperate little family are facing a second tragedy. That mum knows she can lean on me and I will be there to help them rebuild their lives bit by bit over the years.’
The children put in touch with Shelley’s charity often just want someone to listen to them.
‘They are sad and frightened but often their mum and dad are so consumed by their own grief, they are utterly helpless themselves. Children become the forgotten mourners. We wouldn’t leave a child with a broken leg lying untended in the street. Yet we ignore children with broken hearts.
‘Without support, one in three will suffer problems ranging from serious mental health issues to alcohol dependency in later life. All too many end up in prison.
‘We can help them build a better future.’
Strictly the best: Dancer Darcey Bussell presents Shelley with her award
Born to doting parents, Shelley’s life
was magical until the day she came home to discover her mother, Betty,
was no longer there. ‘I hadn’t even known she was ill,’ she explains.
‘It took me a long time to understand she was never coming back.
‘My father didn’t even tell me she was dead because he wanted to protect me from pain.
‘I didn’t go to her funeral. There’s no record of the date she died. All I know is that she was in her mid 40s.
are very intuitive and I realised my father didn’t want to talk so I
never asked questions. I was frightened, confused and blamed myself for
her death. That’s what children do.’
in January 1972, tragedy hit again. Her father Leon, just 52, died in
his sleep. Shelley was taken in by her father’s sister, Belle, and her
‘I’d lost my
parents, my home, my school and my friends with no explanation,’ she
says. ‘My whole identity vanished. In many ways, I was fortunate. I
adored my adopted parents but I could have been spared so much pain if
I’d been allowed to grieve openly.’
'When I met Shelley, I wept tears of joy
and relief that someone understood what it felt like to lose someone.
The charity's help has been immeasurable'
Shelley lived in constant terror that her new family would die too — something she still can’t shake off. ‘Even now, 40 years later, if my husband is late home from work I panic,’ she says.
It was after having her own family — Katie, 29, Daniel, 27, Nick, 23 and Andrew, 16 — that Shelley decided she had to do something. She trained as a psychotherapist and in 2003 wrote a ‘Grief Encounter Workbook’ to help families discuss death.
In the same year, she established her charity, backed by her businessman husband, Michael, 51, and with a donation from her brother-in-law, David Gilbert, who raised 25,000 running the London Marathon.
It’s gone from strength to strength. The charity now employs 25 professional counsellors and six office staff. There are 100 volunteers. Many families contact the charity direct. Others are referred through schools or counsellors.
Celebrity friends and patrons — who have all been bereaved in childhood — include Gabby Logan, who lost her younger brother as a teenager, and Katherine Jenkins whose father died when she was just 15.
Kevin and Nicola Wells — whose 10-year-old daughter Holly was murdered in Soham in 2002 by school caretaker Ian Huntley — credit Shelley with helping put their family back together.
Touched by tragedy: Kevin and Nicola Wells – whose 10-year-old daughter Holly was murdered in Soham in 2002 by school caretaker Ian Huntley – credit Shelley with helping put their family back together meaning son Oliver has been able to live a happy life
Their son Oliver was just 12 when Holly was killed and they feared he would be left traumatised. But now Oliver is thriving. He works in his father’s window-cleaning business and has his own home near his parents which he shares with his girlfriend, Lydia.
Kevin explains: ‘When I met Shelley, I wept tears of joy and relief that someone understood what it felt like to lose someone. The charity’s help has been immeasurable.
‘It may sound strange but the most useful thing Shelley did was tell me that it was fine to grieve. We didn’t have to move on or pretend it hadn’t happened. Our lives were never going to be the same again but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t be a positive, happy family again.’
The Wells family was one of the first that Shelley helped through the charity.
‘I encouraged them to talk openly about Holly — she would always be a huge part of their lives,’ says Shelley. ‘Right at the beginning, Kevin told me that he was determined he wasn’t going to let Huntley damage Oliver. And he stood by that.’
Shelley hopes that one day her charity will no longer be needed.
‘We will have put death on the map and every adult will know how to help children.
‘But until then, I will carry on working seven days a week.’
Treating sick children to a wonderful holiday
Pam Marshall launched Hannah's Holiday Homes after her daughter died from cancer
Every Christmas, Pam Marshall spends a quiet hour reading the entries in her visitor book.
Written by little hands, they are often hard to decipher. But the message is always clear: ‘Thank you.’
The comments are from children who have stayed at one of the holiday homes she’s set up on the south coast to give desperately ill youngsters a break from hospital.
Reading their comments is bittersweet for Pam, 43. For she launched Hannah’s Holiday Homes after her ten-year-old daughter died from cancer in 2004.
Hannah had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, two years before.
‘My husband Brian and I wept in each other’s arms,’ says Pam, who also has a son, Adam, now 17. ‘But we vowed we would never cry in front of Hannah. Even at the end, she didn’t realise she was dying.’
During two years of treatment at Southampton General Hospital, Hannah raised 10,000 to buy treats for young patients by holding discos in different venues near her home town of Horndean, Portsmouth.
‘I’d go in and find her reading stories to the other children,’ Pam says. ‘It was so adult but now I can see that helping others helped her. She led the way for me.’
In August 2003, the family had an idyllic camping trip in Derbyshire. But another tragedy struck — hours after returning, 34-year-old electrician Brian was electrocuted and killed at work.
‘I remember waking up the next morning and praying it was all a dream,’ says Pam. ‘Instead there were four little eyes gazing at me for comfort.’
Hannah’s battle was coming to an end too. In September 2004, she died in her mother’s arms. But Pam refused to wallow in grief. ‘I remembered how much that last family holiday meant to us all. We could be a normal family — something we missed when everything at home reminded us of Hannah’s illness. So I decided to provide the same opportunity for other families.’
In February 2008, the first Hannah’s Holiday Home opened — a 40,000 mobile home in the New Forest paid for by a loan and friends’ generosity.
The second, on Hayling Island near Portsmouth, was launched this March — on the date of what would have been Hannah’s 18th birthday. To date Pam has helped over 130 families, all referred by the hospital.
‘The nicest feedback is the simplest,’ says Pam, who has remarried and has a five-year-old daughter Grace. ‘One little boy wrote: “It was lovely seeing Mummy and Daddy smile again.” That almost broke my heart.’
Rebuilding her town one teen at a time
Andrea Fox set up The Drop Inn where teens can meet, play music and train for college
On the day a local newspaper ran a furious story about hooliganism in the otherwise peaceful town of Belper, Derbyshire, Andrea Fox knew what needed to be done.
Local teenagers had been running amok. Schoolchildren were drinking in the streets, fences were being broken, graffiti was being sprayed everywhere and drugs were rife.
The local community was at the end of its tether.
So Andrea, a single mother of three, stormed down to the local memorial gardens where the gangs hung out.
But she didn’t go there to tell the youngsters off. To their astonishment, she asked them what they wanted. The answer was unanimous — something to do and somewhere to meet.
‘I promised to help them,’ recalls Andrea, 52. ‘One of them said: “It doesn’t matter how long you take because we all have younger brothers and sisters.”
That was the point I realised I needed to do everything I could. They had the right attitude.’
Less than a year later, in March 2000, she set up The Drop Inn, in a basement under a high street shop donated by a businessman, where youngsters could meet and play music, or take part in arts, crafts and plays or train for college.
On the first night, 83 teenagers turned up.
Within 12 months, police noticed a 40 per cent drop in youth crime and nuisance calls occurring in Belper. Today, over 5,000 young people have passed through Andrea’s hands and up to 70 visit the centre every day.
Twice-divorced, she’s made huge sacrifices both emotionally and financially to make it work.
‘Finding a man who understands that my priorities are the Drop Inn and my children is not that easy. It’s caused problems with relationships so I tend to not bother.
‘And my son, Tom, 27, pays my mortgage. He won’t let me leave The Drop Inn — he realises its importance. ‘He, my other son Adrian, 24, and daughter Rachel, 18, all volunteer at the charity and are proud of everything I’ve achieved.’
The success stories speak for themselves. One 14-year-old came to Andrea having been so badly bullied he’d lost all of his hair.
He gradually came out of his shell and, four years on, he’s the Drop Inn’s resident DJ.
‘I’m just so pleased I have been able to help,’ says Andrea. ‘When they come in and say thank you — that’s worth more than any amount of money.’
The double transplant gold medallist
Justine Laymond made history as the first person with a double lung transplant to sail across the Atlantic
Until 2005, Justine Laymond had always lived life to the full — as a dance teacher, trainee gym manager and children’s entertainer, she was rarely off her feet.
But one day, she suddenly became breathless at work and was rushed to hospital. Doctors discovered her left lung had collapsed and her right had disintegrated completely because she was suffering from a condition called Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), one of the rarest in the world.
‘The doctor told me I had less than two years to live and would need a double lung transplant to survive,’ says Justine, now 39. ‘I just crumbled. It was as though everything I had lived for had been shattered.’
Over the next eight months, while waiting for a donor, her left lung collapsed a further 13 times.
‘Every time I was left fighting for my life,’ recalls Justine, from Broomfield, Essex. ‘I remember people coming in to say goodbye. I was induced into a coma for three weeks for life-saving surgery on my left lung. When I woke up I was on a life support machine. I couldn’t talk, breathe for myself, walk or eat.’
After 16 months in hospital, a lung donor was found and three weeks later, she was home.
It gave her a new perspective: ‘I know I could deteriorate very quickly again, so I have decided to live every second to the fullest. Each year I’m alive I have set myself a new goal.’
Since then she’s raised over 10,000 for charity, won gold, silver and bronze medals in the European and World Transplant Games in sprinting, badminton, squash, long jump, shot put, discus, javelin, archery and volleyball and last year made history as the first person with a double lung transplant to sail across the Atlantic.
‘I want to raise awareness of the disease and encourage organ donation,’ she says. ‘Every time I tell my story, if just one person joins up to the organ donor register, that person could save up to eight lives and my job is done.’
On a crusade to crack cancer
Clare Dimmer founded Breast Cancer UK
When mother-of-two Clare Dimmer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994, she decided not only to fight the disease with everything she’d got, but tackle the causes too.
Since then, despite the cancer returning twice, she’s become one of the UK’s leading campaigners for the removal of carcinogens in the environment, helping to get some of the worst offenders banned.
Clare, now 57, began her crusade after undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a mastectomy.
‘Incredibly, the number of breast cancer rates in England since 1971 have increased by 90 per cent,’ she says. ‘It’s no coincidence that during that time a plethora of plastics, toxic pesticides and other hazardous chemicals have been used more widely.’
Clare, from Waterlooville, in Hampshire, joined the Women’s Environmental Network and travelled widely, speaking at conferences and lobbying MPs as well as doing workshops and training to learn genetics and the science behind cancer.
Months after going into remission in 1995, she founded Breast Cancer UK, a charity dedicated to reducing our exposure to carcinogens, helping fund it for the first few years using her own money.
In 2005, Clare’s cancer returned — at one point her immune system collapsed, meaning even the smallest virus could kill her. ‘It was terrifying,’ she says. ‘It seemed unfair to die after going through so much, just because someone gives you a cold.’
But she pulled through and her hard work has paid off. Two years ago, Breast Cancer UK successfully managed to establish an EU ban on the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA (Bisphenol-A) used in babies’ bottles. She’s also helped get the toxic pesticide Lindane banned. ‘Now we’re looking to widen the BPA campaign to other products,’ Clare says.
Sadly, her cancer returned again last year, but she is responding well to chemotherapy.
‘The campaigning gives me energy. When I lie awake in the middle of the night thinking about what happens if the chemo fails, I can concentrate instead on a new report I’m researching.
‘I’m trying to be sensible with this lot of chemo though and not run around like a lunatic.’
Somehow, you doubt that she will stick to that.
With thanks to the Wellbeing of Women charity