Real Life: Local Hero
Alison Fitt was just an ordinary hard-working mother wanting the best for her family until medical complications cut her son’s life cruelly short. Now Alison’s remarkable resilience has won her a top award in a new scheme celebrating the courage to be found within Ely’s community
What started as a germ of an idea in the mind of Soham mother called Alison Fitt became a story of feisty bravery that touched hearts across the nation. It’s a narrative that owes its beginnings to a hit movie set not in the Cambridgeshire fens but in a Yorkshire village.
Alison explains: “I’ve always loved the film Calendar Girls. It captures something wonderful about the strength of ordinary women. What popped into my head one morning was that if I could assemble a group of women like me to create our own calendar we could raise a bit of money.”
When Alison talks about “women like me” she’s referring to a shattering event, the loss of a child. Just ten months before her moment of inspiration Alison and her husband had said a heart-wrenching final goodbye to their adored eldest son, 15-year-old Charlie. He died as the result of complications following a bone marrow transplant.
Little did Alison know that her calendar of a dozen almost-naked women would prompt a wave of interest on social media and lead to invitations to appear on television. Neither did she imagine the project would raise a stunning £26,410 for charity and win her the Ely Hero of the Year Award. “I’m still amazed by the response we had,” she says, “Becoming the overall winner of a brilliant new local scheme came as a complete shock.”
The death of a child creates an unfillable gap. “I needed a focus, something to get me out and about,” says Alison. “I was aware that there were other mothers in and around Soham who’d experienced similar tragedies. You never ever get over the loss of a child. You just learn to live with it and put on your smiley happy face when you leave the house.”
Alison was keen to give something back to the institutions that had supported Charlie and his family through a desperately difficult few years. “I wanted something positive, however small, to come out of all the sadness and to reach out to others in the same position. The staff on the children’s wards at Cambridge and London had done their absolute best,” she says.
“I thought that if we could find other mothers who’d all lost a child, we could create a calendar with a different woman posing, as nearly naked as possible, for each month of the year. I knew nothing about photography, printing or distribution. But I thought if we could make it happen we could sell a few hundred calendars and raise a thousand pounds.”
The first woman Alison approached was a neighbour whose son had died of cancer. “I went to talk to her and outlined my idea. She’d always told me that she’d do anything for me so she agreed. She told me later that she was very doubtful about the whole thing. Before we knew it, we’d found a name for ourselves. We called ourselves the Strong Soham Mums.”
Another woman to join the project early on was Nicola Wells, mother of Holly Wells, one of the two schoolgirls cruelly murdered in 2002. The support from the local community was phenomenal, says Alison. A high standard of photography was vital to the success of the calendar. “Just by chance I met an outstanding local photographer called Alicia Marshall. She took most of the photographs and didn’t charge us.”
Each of the women who took part chose a month and a location. Of all the photos, Alison’s is “the most naked”. Her month is July and she is pictured surrounded by tennis balls. “I love Wimbledon and July is Charlie’s birthday month,” she says. Another mother is photographed with her dog. A third is in a kitchen. The cover photo shows them all, holding the letters that spell out Strong Soham Mums.
When orders for the calendar began to pour in, it was all hands on deck to send them out. “I was up at midnight addressing envelopes to people all over the country,” says Alison. “The printer we found in Bedford did a fantastic job and did several reprints as demand grew.
Charlie had been cared for by Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge and Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. It was an intense time full of lows and highs, tears and laughter. Alison, her husband Darren (Soham’s much-loved postman for the past 40 years) and their younger son Alfie formed close relationships with the staff at both hospitals.
“It was a nurse at Addenbrookes who nominated me for the Ely Hero Awards. She’d spent a lot of time with us when Charlie was very ill and had got to know Alfie too. She’d heard about the calendar through the media coverage. She tweeted to let me know she’d stepped beyond her professional role to put my name forward,” she says.
“I was surprised to be invited to a dinner held by the organisers and even more amazed to discover at the event that I was the winner. The scheme aims to celebrate local people and owes its existence to Naomi Sherwood, marketing manager for Metro Rod Cambridge. She’s a complete star in the way she’s created the Ely Hero Awards from scratch.”
Several of the women who contributed to the calendar had lost children in tragic road traffic accidents.The money raised by the calendar was divided between Addenbrookes Hospitals Trust and the Road Victims Trust, an organisation offering support to residents of Cambridgeshire and nearby counties.
Alison has no intention of pursuing her moment of fame and the women who came together to form the Strong Soham Mums are all getting on with their lives. “It might sound boring but all I want now is to have a humdrum life. Ordinary things like going to work, coming back and cooking tea for the family,” she says.
“It’s a comfort to know that there’s a group of women who understand what each of us has gone through and will always be going through. I think what the calendar did was to show the world that you can carry on with your life despite the most terrible loss. It’s ok to be happy sometimes. Even though there will always be a precious piece of the jigsaw missing.”
Other Ely Heroes
Colleague of the Year 2019 was won by Mark Cornell, farm manager at the Prospects Trust Snakehall Farm. The farm is a flourishing social enterprise that provides meaningful work experience for adults with disabilities. Now certified as an organic producer, the farm recently opened a shop in Ely.
Smiliest Server 2019 was awarded to Louise Drake of Sewing Daze fabric and sewing shop in Sutton. The shop, a new venture and an asset to the local community, is a bright and welcoming and space in which individuals can create connections and get stuck into inspiring sewing projects.
Caring Companion 2019 went to Priscilla Free, who spent many years caring for her seriously ill daughter while bringing her family up singlehandedly and juggling several jobs. On retirement she cared for her terminally ill mother. She fundraises for charities such as Arthur Rank Hospice and continues to support her daughter.
Most Amazing Professional 2019 was presented to Thomas O’Connor, a dentist at the Princess of Wales hospital in Ely. A specialist in adults and children with special needs, he designed an app that allows very young children to have a virtual reality experience of the hospital before they come for a consultation.
Nominations for the 2020 Ely Hero Awards will open on Monday, March 3 and end on Friday, April 17. Details of categories and how to nominate can be found at elyheroawards.org.uk. Nominations will be processed by the panel of judges and winners will be announced at a ceremony on Friday, June 19. The expanded scheme now has 20 local sponsors.
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More by this authorAlex Buxton