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The inspirational story of Kirsty Howard on what would have been her 26th birthday

Through her tireless campaigning, Kirsty secured the future of Francis House Children’s Hospice

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On September 20th 1995, Kirsty Ellen Howard was born in a Wythenshawe hospital and – little did she know at the time – would go on to change the future for thousands of children.

Her start to life was a turbulent one; Kirsty was born with an extraordinarily rare condition in which her heart was positioned back to front, causing the misplacement of her internal organs.

The condition, a form of ‘situs ambiguus’, is inoperable and requires extensive treatment, including a constant external supply of oxygen. The condition is so rare, in fact, that new-born Kirsty was the only person in the UK – and just the second in the whole world – to be diagnosed with it.

The first four years of her life were spent in and out of hospitals and at the age of four doctors gave Kirsty and her family the devastating prediction that she had just six weeks left to live.

But, astonishingly, Kirsty defied those odds and went on to not only live for another sixteen years, attend school and achieve GCSE’s, but to raise millions of pounds for Francis House Children’s Hospice in Didsbury.

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Kirsty initially gained national attention when she was appointed as England’s mascot during their 2002 World Cup game against Greece. Aged just six, Kirsty walked out onto the pitch with her 20kg oxygen tank and holding the hand of then-captain David Beckham, prompting commentator John Motson to call her ‘the bravest person on the pitch’.

The following year, Kirsty and Beckham handed the baton to the Queen at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

And in 2003, Kirsty started the first Great Manchester Run and took part in the race, wearing the number one vest in her wheelchair. She took part in the race every year following. Kirsty was subsequently awarded the Helen Rollason Award by the BBC in 2004 for her courage and determination, as well as the Child of Courage award and the Pride of Britain award.

While all of these achievements may seem incredible enough to most of us, for Kirsty, they didn’t even begin to scratch the surface because her most notable act came in the form of a charity appeal for Francis House Hospice, a Didsbury-based hospice originally opened by Princess Diana in 1991.

Named ‘The Kirsty Club’, Kirsty’s campaign was launched to expand and improve the services the hospice offered – primarily support for families with terminal or life-threatening illnesses – with celebrity supporters of the appeal including Gloria Hunniford, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Davina McCall, and opera singer Russell Watson.

David Ireland, the Chief Executive of Francis House, said of Kirsty’s fundraising: “Francis House had struggled to meet its running costs for many years, Kirsty’s fundraising changed that and gave us a measure of security that allowed us to expand and develop our service. 

“Hundreds of children, young people and their families owe a tremendous debt to the young lady whose face made Francis House a household name.”

Over the years, Kirsty’s fundraising totalled to a staggering £7.5 million, which helped to give thousands of Manchester’s children, teenagers, young adults and their families the help and support they needed in their times of greatest need.

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In the final years of her life, Kirsty was a proud auntie and had been studying childcare at college with the hopes of one day becoming a teacher for children with special needs. However, one month after her twentieth birthday on October 24th 2015, Kirsty passed away peacefully, surrounded by her family at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

Tributes poured in for Kirsty after the news of her death broke, including from the then-Prime Minister David Cameron, who wrote on Twitter: “I’m sad to hear Kirsty Howard has died. She was an amazing person with boundless passion who did so much good.”

David Beckham also posted a tribute, sharing a photo of him with Kirsty and writing on Instagram: “Words cannot describe how amazing this young lady has been over the years. Kirsty has been defying doctors for many years and whilst doing that she has been raising millions of pounds for terminally ill children.”

And lastly, Francis House, whom Kirsty raised so much money for over the years, shared their own tribute, writing simply: “We cannot express enough our humble thanks and gratitude to an incredible young woman.”

Rest in peace, Kirsty Howard.

Feature

The best winter walks near Manchester

Something to blow away those cobwebs…

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Christmas is for spending time with loved ones, giving gifts and, most importantly, eating copious amounts of food and drinking an unholy amount.

Most Mancunians will have completely smashed the latter so, today, could possibly be feeling a little worse for wear.

But luckily for them, Manchester is within close proximity to a number of beautiful nature spots and walking trails, all of which are ideal for blowing away the cobwebs and shifting some of the calories gained from all those roast potatoes. 

Here are some of our favourite spots…

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Snake Pass

The crossing between Glossop and Sheffield across the Peaks is mostly open moorland but, on one side of Snake Road, walkers will find stunning pine forest that makes for the perfect winter stroll.

The Snake Wood Circular is an extremely picturesque walk ideal for all the family, and boasts a magical river, moss-lined undergrowth and creeks with forty-foot high pines. 

This trail is pet friendly, and offers the perfect opportunity to escape from the city and reconnect with nature – though it is worth noting it will be closed in the event of icy weather. 

More information here.

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Lyme Park

Found in the south of Disley in the Peak District is Lyme Park, a sprawling 1,400 acre National Trust estate boasting stunning landscapes and an abundance of wildlife. 

The estate – once home to the Legh family – offers a number of fantastic walks at the Rose Garden, Ravine Garden or the reflecting lake, where Mr. Darcy met Miss Bennet in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

Guests can even head inside the historic mansion to step back in time to the Regency era. 

More information here.

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Ladybower Reservoir 

The large Y-shaped body of water with giant ‘plugholes’ that most Mancunians will recognise is the Ladybower Reservoir, and it makes for the most scenic of winter walks.

Around an hour’s drive from Manchester city centre, it was built due to the large demand for water from nearby industrial towns and was officially opened by King George VI on September 24th 1945.

The reservoir itself is nestled within some stunning countryside, and the breathtaking views of water, woodland and moorland have long been a big draw for outdoor-enthusiasts – you’ll find loads of circular walking and cycling routes in the area, plus viewpoints.

More information here.

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Lud’s Church

Located near Buxton, Lud’s Church is a deep chasm full of history, myths and lots of greenery, with stone steps leading into another world.

The eighteen-metre deep chasm was created by a huge landslip, and has consequently been covered in moss and other plant-life over the years. It’s only 100-metres long, but you walkers can spend days taking in the outstanding natural wonders in all its nooks and crannies.

Lud’s Church became a secret worship place for people who faced persecution in the 15th Century. It was used as a church by the ‘Lollards’, followers of the reformer and ‘heretic’ John Wycliffe.

More information here.

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Lancashire’s Japanese Lake

Tucked away around halfway up Rivington Pike is one of Britain’s lost gardens, according to Countryfile in 2014.

The Japanese Lake is part of the Rivington Terraced Gardens, and was built by the founder of the former Lever Brothers company – now known as Unilever – Lord Leverhulme, inspired by one of his many trips to Japan.

More information here.

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Thor’s Cave 

Thor’s Cave, also known as Thor’s House Cavern and Thyrsis’s Cave, is a gigantic natural cavern found in the Manifold Valley of the White Peak in Staffordshire, and it offers some dazzling views.

The cave entrance comprises a huge symmetrical arch 7.5 metres wide and 10 metres high, and can be seen from the valley bottom around 80 metres below.

Walkers can reach the cave via an easy stepped path from the Manifold Way, with a 7.5km circular walk from Wetton village taking them along the River Manifold before passing by Thor’s Cave and other caverns.

More information here.

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Feature

The Manchester charity pairing young people with the elderly to combat loneliness at Christmas

Manchester Cares is doubling down its efforts to prevent loneliness among communities over the festive period

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For most, Christmas is a time for family and friends, but for others it is instead a time of isolation and loneliness. 

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, around 45% of adults in the UK experience some form of loneliness, a feeling that intensifies over the festive period.  

So this is why local charity Manchester Cares is doubling down on its efforts to combat the issue of loneliness among communities across Manchester this Christmas.

Founded five years ago, Manchester Cares brings younger and older generations together through group activities and one-on-one friendships, giving them the opportunity to build genuine and meaningful connections. 

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Manchester Cares hosts and organises a whole variety of Social Clubs for its community members to enjoy together, including pub quizzes, wine tasting, documentary clubs and even trips to Manchester Art Gallery.

All free for those wanting to join them in their mission of bringing younger and older people together to build community and connection across our wonderful city. 

The charity relies heavily on the help of its members and volunteers to keep loneliness and isolation at bay. But as the cost-of-living crisis plunges the UK further into a loneliness epidemic, Manchester Cares needs your help more than ever before. 

Manchester Cares’ Head of Programmes Vicky Harrold says the charity will be organising and hosting a whole array of neighbour meet-ups and activity sessions for those struggling with both loneliness and financial pressures this Christmas.

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Vicky told Proper Manchester: This Christmas we will be continuing to do what we do best, curate spaces that bring younger and older people together to share time, stories, and laughter. We want to be the place that provides emotional respite to all the challenging things that are happening in the world right now.”

Vicky also said that the charity will also be extending the length of its clubs this winter in order for neighbours to have somewhere warm to spend their time at no extra cost.

She added: “We’ll be offering food and refreshments along with festive films, parties, wreath making and most importantly the opportunity to have a chat with someone you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.” 

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In addition to the Festive Clubs, Manchester Cares members will also be paying visits to anyone who they think will be spending the Christmas period alone in the week leading up to the big day.

Vicky explained: “Initially, we would give out little gifts, but we now recognise that it’s sharing time that means the most.

But Manchester Cares recognises that community and connection don’t just matter at Christmas; they matter all year round.

That’s why the charity is always welcoming new members to join its community network in its fight against loneliness in Manchester, regardless of the time of year.

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People are now being urged to sign up through the Manchester Cares website and come along to one of its general inductions. Vicky stressed that there’s no expectation for anyone to get involved, and that it’s simply an opportunity to hear a bit more about what Manchester Cares does and how people can get involved.

Offering a final bit of advice for anyone struggling with any of these issues, Vicky said: “Try stepping away from social media and investing that time into creating meaningful interactions every day.

“This can be anything from making that call to a friend you’ve been meaning to for a while, to saying hello to the bus driver on your way to work.

“And if you’re lucky enough to still have older family members, we really encourage you to go and chat to them, pick up the phone or have a brew – we hear the best stories every day just from starting that conversation.

Manchester Cares

“And finally, there are so many amazing charities like ours doing such great work- volunteering your time can be such a fun and rewarding way to meet new people.

“We’ve seen over our first five years, sharing time is the best gift you can ever give.”

From November 29th to December 6th 2022, Manchester Cares is taking part in The Big Give Christmas Challenge to help bring our neighbours together to stay warm, active and connected. Donations made during that week are doubled, meaning your gift will make twice the difference this winter. Find out how you can support here. 

Manchester Cares is always on the look out for new volunteers, community members and neighbours to join them in their fight against loneliness. 

People can join the community, or can alternatively make a referral for anyone over 65 they think will benefit from the clubs and programmes. 

All of this can be done via the Manchester Cares website.

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Feature

Chester Zoo has a paid apprenticeship scheme that doesn’t require qualifications

We spoke to Rachel McCann, who is helping Chester Zoo with its mission to save Eastern black rhinos from extinction

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When news first arose of Chester Zoo’s apprenticeship scheme earlier this year, many people couldn’t help but ponder the possibility of a swift career change.

For the first time, the UK’s leading conservation zoo was giving people the chance to embark upon a career in conservation without the need for any qualifications.

The scheme opened up opportunities in a variety of roles, including zookeepers, aquarists and horticulturalists, as well as positions in animal and plant logistics.

But a role at Chester Zoo isn’t for the faint of heart, which is something rhino keeper Rachel McCann can most certainly vouch for.

Rachel joined the zoo’s team three years ago as a giraffe keeper, but was later transferred to the rhino team thanks to her specific skill set and past experience.

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Yet while many might assume her day consists mainly of spending quality time with Chester Zoo’s eight Eastern black rhino inhabitants – Kitani, Malindi, Ema-elsa, Kasulu, Ike, Jumaane, Zuri and Gabe – Rachel actually plays a huge part in the conservation and repopulation of this critically endangered species.

Thanks to human conflict, poaching threats and habitat destruction, there are only 5,000 Eastern black rhinos left in the wild and a mere ninety in zoos around the world – something Chester Zoo is working tirelessly to change.

Rachel told Proper Manchester that her role as a keeper takes a predominant focus on reintroducing black rhinos back into the wild and boosting birth numbers among the animals not only at Chester, but at a variety of zoos across Europe and in the wild in Africa.

And this all starts in one place; the faeces.

Several times a week, Rachel is tasked with collecting faecal samples from the female rhinos, which are then sent off to the zoo’s on-site conservation lab for testing and analysis.

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Thanks to these samples, the zoo’s conservation team are able to track the rhino’s ovulation cycles and determine when to pair them with males to breed. 

Rachel explained: “Through this testing, we’re able to see which pairs work best for breeding going off their cycles, their weight and their personalities. The rhinos are now matched up going by the best genetic compatibility. 

“This research is also applied to how we can help rhinos out in the wild – any of our research, for that matter, can be applied for helping wild animals too.”

And a higher number of births at the zoo equates for a better chance of the black rhinos’ population being increased out in the wild, which is part of Chester Zoo’s mission to prevent extinction.

However, the process of reintroducing rhinos back into the wild is a lengthy one. Rachel explained: “The main bulk of the reintroduction process is reducing human contact, because we don’t want them approaching people once they’re back in the wild.

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“Keeper contact is gradually fazed out, so they don’t see us hardly ever, whether it be putting food out or tidying up the paddock. Once they’re ready, they’ll be released into a secured area with zero human contact.

“They are then released into protected areas with rangers on duty for their safety. Without all of that, we wouldn’t be able to save the species.”

And Chester Zoo’s conservation work isn’t just restricted to breeding; the zoo has a dedicated team out in Kenya that educates local communities about the animals in a bid to allow them to co-exist peacefully, ultimately reducing conflict.

Rachel said: “We fund rangers out in Africa to protect wild black rhinos and also work with local communities and schools to reduce wildlife conflict.

“Poaching is their biggest threat alongside habitat loss, so it’s important when working with communities to reduce this conflict. Local people struggle because rhinos destroy their crops, so it’s about finding solutions for them to coexist and live alongside each other.”

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Though Rachel’s responsibilities don’t end there, as the role of zoo keeper certainly isn’t without its graft – and many cups of tea, something she says is ‘definitely the most important part of the day’.

Her day typically begins at 8am, where she begins the laborious jobs of cleaning up the paddocks, tidying up any left over food and droppings from the previous day and replenishing the rhino’s food and water.

Keepers also use this time in the mornings to give the animals a quick once-over to ensure they’re of good health. This can involve checking their eyes, ears and even the insides of their mouths for any sign of infection or decay.

A zoo keeper’s afternoon tends to consist of a lot of prep for the following day. Rachel explained: “We have really busy days, so prepping the day before helps a lot so we can make the most of our time.

“We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed! We sometimes switch up the feeding times to reduce the rhinos anticipating us coming. Switching up the routine keeps them on their toes.

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“They’re very smart and switched on, so it’s good to give them a challenge and ensure their days are different. We don’t want their days to be too repetitive. 

“We give out our last feeds during the afternoons and carry out the final checks. And then, we go home, go to bed and start it all again the next day.”

Yet while the role may be laborious, challenging, and even testing at times, Rachel wouldn’t change any of it.

She said: “I love working with the rhinos, they’re magnificent but have a soft and sensitive side too. That makes working with them every day very different, no day is the same.

“They’re always getting up to mischief.

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“My favourite part of the job though is getting to work with such a rare species every single day. While it is sad to see how endangered their species are, for me it’s actually a motivation each day to get out of bed and come to work to help get them back into the wild. 

“The rhinos at Chester Zoo are ambassadors for their species, they show the public and visitors how amazing they are and why we should be saving them.”

For more information on Chester Zoo’s family of black rhinos and what they’re doing to save the species, visit the official website here.

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