Charity begins at home for Bethesda

dr bethesda

DR pictured with members of the Stornoway Rugby Club, who raised over £5,000 for Bethesda by completing a sponsored walk from the Butt to Barra last summer

By Murray MacLeod

It is hard to envisage the success of the Bethesda Care Home and Hospice in Stornoway being replicated anywhere else. The need for such a facility initially came from the community itself (one prominent Free Church minister, to be precise), it was formally established thanks to a joint approach by the local churches and is kept going to this day thanks to the generosity of island residents.

Following a recent expansion completed at the end of last year it now employs a total of 80 people, making it a significant economic contributor. It has three complementary elements — a care home, funded by the council (including the recent addition of nine respite beds); a charity shop in the centre of town; and the hospice, which is part-funded by the health board but which still requires around £250,000 each year in the form of contributions from the pockets of islanders. So far, they have never disappointed.

It is the hospice in particular, and its dependence on local fundraising contributions, which is the most impressive of the Bethesda operations.

At the time of its inception, bed-blocking was a major issue at the local hospital and patients in need of palliative care were either being treated in wards or sent to the mainland. So a local campaign was launched to build a dedicated facility on the island.

It opened in 1992 to much fanfare and since 1999 one man has been absolutely instrumental in ensuring its continued success on a day-to-day basis, even in the face of changing dynamics within the local community.

DR MacDonald is officially the centre finance officer, responsible for all matters in relation to money and wages and, crucially, with a remit to maintain momentum in the fundraising stakes. Therefore his is very much Bethesda’s public face.

DR and colleague Carol Somerville are presented with a cheque for £10,000 from NHS Western Isles towards the purchase of a new van for Bethesda

DR and colleague Carol Somerville are presented with a cheque for £10,000 from NHS Western Isles towards the purchase of a new van for Bethesda

“I came into it quite green actually,” he said. “I worked for 27 years for British Airways and I had to give up work there. I worked in insurance for a while after that and then I came in here.

“It was a steep learning curve, that’s for sure. But what certainly helped was my years working for British Airways and my local contacts in the community. I knew a lot of people that I was able to call on.”

It was an unfortunate turn of events that led to him having to give up his long-serving post at the airport in Stornoway. While unloading baggage, crouched in the hold of a plane, he went to throw a big black suitcase onto the conveyor belt – only for his back to jar. He was in severe pain, unable to move —  little wonder, as it turned out, because the injury was severe.

“The base of my spine snapped,” he said. “I had to get taken off that plane on a wheelchair. For 20 months I was on high doses of painkillers and various things and trips down to a medical centre in London. Ever since then I’ve been on painkillers every day. It’s debilitating but it’s something you learn to live with. As long you take the tartan tablets every day, you’re fine!”

All in all, he has recovered quite well and, thankfully, is able to dedicate himself to the day-to-day grind of Bethesda. But thanks to the generosity of spirit of his fellow islanders, he acknowledges his job is made that little bit easier.

When he does decide to step down, there is one thing he knows can be relied on and something that should enable a lasting legacy for Bethesda – the generosity of his fellow islanders.

“It’s a well-known fact that the people of this island, per head of population, give more to charity than any other area, nationally or worldwide,” he said. “I personally believe that’s down to the Christian ethos of the community. The support that they have given to us as an organisation is largely down to that, I think.
“It’s not compulsory, but we have morning and evening worship every day in Bethesda and I think that has a big effect. We hear so often people come in the doors here and they feel there’s something different about Bethesda. Now it’s difficult to put that down to one thing but a lot of the staff are committed and give their lives to it. I myself live and breathe Bethesda to such an extent that sometimes my family have to take a back seat.”

Somewhat unusually for someone born and brought up in the town of Stornoway, his command of the Gaelic language is as impressive as if he had spent all his formative years on the croft.

“I put that down to my conversion at 18,” he said – that and having two parents from Lochs. Having a wife from Scalpay, Harris, probably helped, too.

As a young Christian in Lewis half a century ago, it was impossible not to be immersed in Gaelic. The vast majority of services on the island at that time were held in the language since it was the main means of communication. So DR availed himself of a bilingual bible and so began a new conversion of a different kind.

“I remember the first time I was asked to pray in Gaelic,” he recalls. “It was in the seminary in Stornoway and I think the pool of sweat is still there where I stood. I was like the old ‘bodach’ who had to pray in English as all his family were married to people from the mainland. He was getting on fine, but as he was coming to the end he didn’t know how to finish it so just said: Yours faithfully, Angus MacKay.”

Nowadays his Gaelic prayers would put a lot of native speakers to shame and he is also a very accomplished precentor of Gaelic psalms.

His tenure at Bethesda is, however, coming to an end. He celebrates his 65th birthday tomorrow (Friday) — official retirement age. “I have decided to stay on, though, another year anyway,” he said. “It wouldn’t be right to leave just now, with us just having completed the extension. It’s not the right time — everything still has to settle down a bit.”

“It’s amazing, you know: in March this year it will be 24 years since we opened and year on year we’ve been able to wash our faces and have never been in any debt. That’s a tremendous tribute to this community and the support we get. It does take you aback sometimes.”

“It’s amazing, you know: in March this year it will be 24 years since we opened and year on year we’ve been able to wash our faces and have never been in any debt. That’s a tremendous tribute to this community and the support we get. It does take you aback sometimes.”

“It is getting harder to get money, but one of the main reasons for that is just that there are so many other charities out there now all competing,” he said. “Even just locally there are other worthy charities – the Leanne Fund, Linda Norgrove – all here on the island. There is always a limit to what people can give. The economic crisis we have had in the last few years means the cake is smaller and more people are looking for a slice of it.

“We’ve got to look at new ways of getting funds all the time, but when we do that and it is successful others will just copy so you’re back to square one and need to find new ways again. You need to remember as well that community councils, sports clubs, local organisations — they’re all looking for money as well out in the community.”

However, he added: “Having said all that, we are very grateful and deeply humble about the support we get. Some people just go ahead and do stuff and the first we know about it is when they come to us with the cheque. Others, of course, will contact us first and get permission.

“It’s amazing, you know: in March this year it will be 24 years since we opened and year on year we’ve been able to wash our faces and have never been in any debt. That’s a tremendous tribute to this community and the support we get. It does take you aback sometimes.”