As she makes her way through the corridors of Rotherham Hospice, everybody knows Jessica Breckin.
Nurses and volunteers stop to greet her, hugging her and marvelling at how she’s grown. They want to know how she is, what she’s been doing and some even comment on how much she looks like her mum.
Nearby, her dad - former Rotherham United manager John Breckin - is clearly proud as punch of his little girl, who will turn 18 in February.
Jessica and John have a long relationship with this hospice and the people who work here; people who - in their words - they owe more than they can ever repay.
Nine years ago they lost Jessica’s mum, John’s wife - Denise - here, after a six year battle with breast cancer that eventually spread to her bones, lungs and brain.
“The people here got us through a horrible time,” says John, who helped fundraise to open the hospice in 1989, years before his wife was even diagnosed.
“Denise battled and battled her cancer, going through three lots of chemo, and received care at the hospice for the last 18 months of her life.
“She spent three weeks here before she died in 2006, aged just 48, and I still remember the day I had to tell my eight year old daughter that her mummy was not coming home again.
“I couldn’t find the words, so a wonderful woman, a shift nurse named Cath Todd, got down on the floor with Jess and helped me break the news to her. She cried, I cried, Cath cried. I’ll never forget the way the staff were there for all of us at the worst moment of our lives. And I know Jess will never forget it either.”
Today is a happier day - John and Jessica, who live in Wickersley, have returned to Rotherham Hospice for a Christmas Party with the Sunbeams group they helped to launch five years ago.
Sunbeams is a children’s bereavement support service first established by Cath, who cared for Denise in her last 18 months and remains a good friend of the Breckin family. Cath began working with children who had lost a ‘significant adult’ at the hospice - often a parent or grandparent - as far back as 2000, helping them to cope and share their feelings.
In 2010, with John’s support, Cath formally set up Sunbeams, with Jessica becoming its first official member.
“It can be hard getting children to talk,” says Cath.
“We started doing crafty things with them, making memory boxes and candle holders or, at this time of year, Christmas tree baubles, to remember their loved ones. While they’re working, they begin to talk - to us, to each other.
“In that first year, we worked with seven bereaved children, mostly in our own time, paying for materials ourselves. In September this year we finally got proper funding to run the service for six months.”
Under Cath’s leadership, the numbers grew and there are now two groups of nine children, aged four to 18 years, meeting twice a month.
Cath adds: “It’s somewhere for children who have lost someone very important in their young lives to feel safe, a place they can express feelings they perhaps worry will upset family members.”
Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Barker joined Sunbeams two years ago, after losing her grandma at the hospice.
“I found it really hard, we did everything together and were very close,” explains the youngster.
“I didn’t want to come to Sunbeams at first because I thought nobody understood, but it really helps to listen to other people’s stories.”
Maya Beaumont has been coming to the group on-and-off for a year, after losing her dad, nannan and grandad at various points in her short life,
“It’s really helpful to be around other kids who’ve gone through the same thing,” says the 11-year-old.
“I stopped coming for a while, because I got so busy with school and other things, but I started struggling again and getting upset, so my mum suggested I come back. Things are much better now.”
Lisa Stanley brought her son Corey, aged 10, along in April after he lost his grandmother quite suddenly.
She explains: “My mum died quickly and it left Corey with a lot of questions and confusion. He didn’t understand everything that had happened and why; he was struggling so the staff suggested he come along to Sunbeams and he is doing so much better now.”
Jessica reveals she’s seen firsthand the difference Sunbeams can make, saying: “I honestly felt, at eight years old, that nobody else was going through what I was going through - I felt so alone.
“At Sunbeams, I was suddenly surrounded by kids I could relate to and share my experiences with. I wasn’t alone anymore in my situation and that meant so much.”
John, aged 62, adds: “When I told people I was going to a kid’s Christmas Party at the hospice, they looked at me like I was mad, because it’s easy to forget there’s more to hospices than death; they’re about liiving too, living every moment until the very end. And then there’s the people left behind, who go on receiving that care and support for as long as they need it, thanks to groups like Sunbeams.”
But with funding for the group running out in March 2016, its future is uncertain, and John is imploring people to think of the hospice in their charitable giving.
“We’re not sure what will happen to the group if a sponsor or other grant body doesn’t appear in the next few months,” he admits.
“I know it’s difficult these days because there are so many worthy causes, but we’re so lucky to have this service in Rotherham and we must keep it going.”
As the group rounds off another successful year with music, games and laughter - and even a visit from Father Christmas - John comments in amazement about the smiles on the children’s faces.
“The work that’s being done here, with these kids, is too vital to lose. Death comes into everyone’s life at some time. It’s the ones left behind who need the help more than anything when a loved one passes and, somehow, the living has to go on.
“The living is going on here.”