Bringing up three children on my own and having already been made redundant twice, I needed a job with security, and six years ago this job appeared safe. From being one of 500 applicants I got down to the last two, but although I got on well with James Stanford, then director-general of the Leonard Cheshire, he initially told me I hadn't got the job. But minutes later he rang again to say "Hold fire, we want to offer you the job after all". I accepted but wanted to know why I was second choice. He said it was due to my spelling which is, I confess, terrible because I am dyslexic.
James employed me at the beginning of his reign so we learnt our roles together. Charities tend to rely a lot on crisis management because when something unexpected happens it tends to takes precedence over everything else. Yet office life can seem quite divorced from what's happening on the ground and I only really understood my work after a resident showed me around one of the Cheshire Homes. The Homes ensure that disabled people are allowed to be in charge of their own lives, which is so important to them. Apparently, when our founder, Leonard Cheshire, became disabled himself through Motor Neurone Disease he said, "Now that I am one of them I can understand them". By the time I met Lord Cheshire he was already very ill and when he died it was a huge and very emotional event for all of us.
I understand myself how important it is not to feel patronised as a disabled person because I had a stroke some years ago. I had to re-learn how to talk and write and for a while, although my thoughts were intact, the only means I had of being understood was when I cried. It took time for me to be diagnosed because the common belief is that strokes only happen to older people. I'm more or less back to normal now, although I can still have difficulty with hand eye co-ordination, but I didn't tell James about the stroke until he noticed that I was struggling during a particularly frantic period.
The most interesting aspect to my job is that I liaise with a huge number of people - we have 87 homes and 37 core "at home" services. My role includes being PA to the chairman and the trustees so I organise three diaries. I work from 8.30am to 7.30pm and spend much of the day rushing around the various offices within the building, so by the time I get home I usually collapse. When we are involved in a special event, like the London Marathon, I will work during the weekend, too, either in my PA role or lending a hand shaking a bucket or selling balloons and umbrellas. This is a crucial year for us; not only is it our Golden Jubilee but we are also endeavouring to highlight disabled people's experience of social exclusion.
Sometimes I feel pulled in two directions - my children grew up as latchkey kids, and my social life can be disadvantaged, but my priorities lie with Leonard Cheshire and it is important to me that I do my job properly. Leonard Cheshire is a very friendly organisation and welcomed my youngest daughter when I brought her into the office with me - she's become a very competent assistant office manager as a result.
Several months ago Major General Bryan Dutton became our new director- general, having worked for Chris Patten in Hong Kong. When you've built up a working relationship with one boss and suddenly someone else takes over it can feel difficult because initially you aren't sure whether he wants you there or not. I feel rather sorry for poor Bryan because I was foisted upon him and maybe if he had been free to choose a PA it wouldn't have been me. He's had so much to learn about the organisation that we haven't really had much time to get to know one another, but we are learning to work together and juggle things. I am horrendously tidy, for example, whereas Bryan isn't terribly tidy.
Although I am treading a narrow path and have to be careful not to say "But it's usually done this way", I think I can guide Bryan in the ethos of Leonard Cheshire because he is a sensitive man and a good listener. It's important to get things right because when members don't like the way something is done they immediately write in asking, "How do you think Lord Cheshire and Lady (Sue) Ryder would feel about this?" But above all I want to be make sure that I am the PA that Bryan wants me to be, enabling him to do his best for the organisation. In a way I feel as if I have been given a new job, too.