Children giggling during hide-and-seek and whipping up chocolate crispy cakes was not quite what I expected at an Eltham hospice.
I had prepped myself for a potentially heartbreaking trip to visit sick children when I was invited to Demelza South East London ahead of its fifth birthday celebrations in July.
But the centre was full of life, with children laughing and playing – whether banging a drum in the music room or chatting with cheerful staff.
The goal is about enhancing life for children and young people, from babies to 19-year-olds, with life-limiting or life-threatening illnesses, and the space is strewn with art work and sensory experiences to help achieve this.
Community fundraiser Emma Howe said: "When a lot of people think of hospices, they think it is going to be depressing and it is not like that here at all.
"One of the mottos of Demelza is ‘adding life to days, where days can’t be added to life’. We try to give experiences that children might normally take for granted.
"It is one of the greatest places to work, it’s so cheerful. It is like a little family."
The approach to life, death and dying is refreshing, with an emphasis on embracing the moments in between life’s final markers instead of fearfully shying away.
Ms Howe, who has also worked in an adult’s hospice, added: "Whatever the children are going through, they are just children. When adults get sick, they can wallow in self-pity, but not children."
The centre currently looks after 197 children with some young visitors dropping in a couple of days per week to give families and carers a break, or as an-between from hospital care to home.
There is a lively programme of events from trips to the circus to pyjama parties, and the hospice’s teens recently gazed down on the capital from the giddy heights of the Shard.
Art and music therapy rooms allow children to express their emotions, while a heated water bed and material feelers on walls give youngsters with sensory limitations an enhanced experience.
The centre is designed to feel like a ‘home from home’ instead of a hospital, with medical equipment wires hidden and children encouraged to decorate their rooms.
A wall of children’s smiling faces - both past and present - was particularly poignant but the overall atmosphere of the hospice is strangely uplifting.
Indeed, the most calming room is the Quiet Room, where remembrance services are held, and its glass-topped roof and stunning Damien Hurst pieces of butterflies on paint offer a sacred space.
As practice development nurse Eveth Thomas, said: "There is this perception that a children’s hospice is where children are lying in a bed dying, but it isn’t.
"It is meant to be a happy place for children to want to come to just be, or, if a child comes to die, to have a good death for a child and the family. It is a holistic approach."
Counselling is on offer to parents and siblings of children at the hospice, as well as a room for families to stay with their child, after they have passed away, for as long as they need to say goodbye.
History of Demelza
Demelza was founded by Derek and Jennifer Phillips after their daughter Demelza suddenly died from a brain tumour at the age of 24.
Demelza worked at a Birmingham children’s hospice and the couple were so impressed with its work they wanted to start one in the south.
They opened Demelza Kent in 1998 followed by Demelza South East London in 2009 - caring for children in areas including Kent, Lewisham, Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley.
It costs around £9million to run the hospices' services each year with funds based on donations.
To find out more visit demelza.org.uk or call 020 8859 9800.
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