Toby's experience in dealing with a cholera epidemic in Rwanda has had great influence on his work at Acorns

February 04 2019
Toby's experience in dealing with a cholera epidemic in Rwanda has had great influence on his work at Acorns

The head of a Bath Road-based charity for children with life-limiting illnesses brings to his position widespread experience, including tackling natural and man-made disasters across the globe.

Toby Porter, chief executive of Acorns Children’s Hospice Trust, took up the post in 2016, following senior roles in a variety of organisations, ranging from Save the Children to HelpAge International.

As global emergencies director for Save the Children, he led the charity’s response to the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005.

Before that he worked in Rwanda’s refugee camps between 1994 and 1995 and led Oxfam’s response to the Kosovo crisis in 1999.

Mr Porter has spent his whole working life in humanitarian and development assistance, including his work with Oxfam.

His childhood saw his family travel the world, as his father was in the Royal Navy, with stints in Singapore and Hong Kong as well as Plymouth and Portsmouth.

“With a lot of humanitarian work you do a year or two in one place and then move on,” said Mr Porter, comparing it to moving around with the Navy.

“I wonder sometimes if that became part of my DNA,” he added.

His father died on Mr Porter’s 16th birthday and in the years following that he admitted to being “a bit lost” before a significant meeting helped set him on the career path he has trodden ever since.

He was raising money for the homes for people with illnesses and disabilities set up and run by Leonard Cheshire, former Group Captain of 617 Squadron known as the Dambusters.

He met Mr Cheshire, who asked him what he intended to do after university. Planning to travel around India for six months he was invited by Mr Cheshire to visit some of his homes in India and so went to work for him there.

He then joined an international health charity, Merlin, finding himself thrust into a logistics role for a children’s vaccination programme in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“I was young and green, aged 21 or 22. It was scary. The country we were in was shelled daily but we survived and got the job done.”

The next year brought the Rwanda crisis, which included a cholera epidemic.

Merlin carried out medical assistance work there in the largest unaccompanied children’s centre.

“There were about 2,000 children there,” said Mr Porter, “It was a crazy place.

“At the height of the cholera and dysentery we were losing about eight or 10 children a day.

“I was there with a paediatrician from Birmingham  Children’s Hospital and a nurse from the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh.

“They were lovely people and they quickly established a protocol that when they felt nothing could be done for a child that whoever was on hand would hold and comfort the child while they slipped away.

“These kids had no mothers – they had no family members.”

That experience proved a pivotal point in Mr Porter’s life and influences his work at Acorns to this day. 

“This is where the connection to Acorns came from – no question,” he explains.

There followed a period which saw him tackle problems in Kenya and Sudan, as well as Kosovo and then the Asian Tsunami before he was appointed chief executive officer of HelpAge International, a global network of older people’s organisations.

Mr Porter said the international aid economy generally focused on issues such as cholera, ebola and malaria while issues such as elderly malnutrition did not have the same high profile.

With three children of his own, the demands of spending two weeks out of four outside the UK working with HelpAge International’s partners in 110 countries led him to seek a role without constant international travel.

He saw the Acorns position advertised online and was immediately stimulated by it.

“It made me think about Rwanda and that place I talked about,” he explained, adding: “I was interested enough to research the opportunity, go online and look at the charity.

“You realise Acorns has a fantastic story to tell.”

He went on: “It was very professionally medically expert but with enormous empathy and compassion.”

With prevailing unrest over the UK’s future direction amid the divisions of the Brexit debate Mr Porter put it into context, saying: “Any uncertainty that we’re feeling at the moment is a fraction of the anxiety a parent has when they are told their child is ill.

“Every day, in every single hospice, we’re dealing with families who are dealing with that uncertainty.”


Centre provides holistic home-from-home care for children, teenagers and their families

Acorns provides babies, children and young people aged from nought  to 18 years who have life-limiting or life-threatening conditions and associated complex needs with a network of specialist palliative nursing care and support.

A holistic service meets the needs of both the children and young people and their families, including the bereaved.

Acorns for the Three Counties, which opened in Bath Road, Worcester in 2005, is a hospice with 10 bedrooms, two family care suites and two family flats and a lounge area.

It is set in large gardens and facilities include activity rooms for arts and crafts, a multi-sensory room, indoor soft play and outdoor play area.

It also has a computer den and young person’s lounge for older clients.

Care and support offered is not just for the children but for the whole family, with the aim of providing a home from home environment.

The hospice care team has paediatric palliative care nurses, health care assistants and physiotherapists. There are daily visits from local GPs and access to the expertise of Acorns' medical director, who is a senior community paediatrician.

A hydrotherapy pool enables children to have therapeutic support from the physiotherapy team. Families can also have family splash sessions.

A complementary therapy team provide treatments for children and family members, including massage, reflexology and acupressure.

The on-site catering team can cater for all dietary needs including vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher and African Caribbean food.

The hospice can provide care and support at end of life.

Acorns Hospice for the Three Counties is one of three, with the others based in Selly Oak and Walsall.

During 2018 Acorns marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of its first hospice.

It costs almost £10 million for Acorns to run its care services in the hospices and community.