Life is just child's play for WI president Kate

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CHILDREN and charities have been some of Kate Akroyd's main concerns through her life so far and, despite having to face daunting family problems over the past few years, she plans that they will continue to be so.

"I have always had children around me - they tire you out but keep you going!" laughs Kate, a mother and grandmother herself who, as an eldest grandchild helped in the care of her siblings, baby-sat for friends, has been a nanny, and was a member of staff at a special school and a children's home.

She went on to help the specialist children's hospice in Chorley, Derian House, by organising a debut fund-raiser with friends in her home village, Ribchester, to start a series of 'ladies only' charity events.

She explains: "We'd noticed that the men were always catered for through special occasions such as lunches or dinners, like sportsmen's dinners for example - so we decided to have one for the ladies!

"The Black Bull's landlady at the time, Linda Cairns, offered the pub as a venue and we raised a marvellous 600, making it a good start for the series we'd planned."

But it was then that the daunting family problems took over, eventually leading to the group's charity emphasis moving on to breast cancer care and, after a gap of three years, the resumption of the 'ladies only' dinners.

Held last Friday at the Ribchester Arms, it was the first of what Kate hopes will be the regular fund-raisers she'd always planned. Fifty guests sat down to an excellent meal and, with ticket sales, a raffle and an adult 'lucky dip' of surprise parcels, raised a stunning 700 for Breast Cancer Care.

The next fund-raiser is to be an Ascot Afternoon in June, emulating Ladies Day at the famous races, when Kate will be asking all guests to dress up and wear hats in the traditional fashion, there will be entertainment and possibly a celebrity guest.

Both the events in aid of breast cancer have come at some emotional cost to Kate and her family, however, after daughter-in-law Lee was diagnosed with the condition three years ago.

This was not long after Kate had lost all the members of her family in just a few years - her mum and dad, Ivy and Jim Burch, and brother Michael aged 48, with another brother George having died at the age of 18.

"We have a gene in the family which causes cardiomyopathy, enlargement of the heart," explained Kate... "but it was the diagnosis of Lee's cancer on top of those losses which was so daunting to face."

The emotion of it all, she says, 'hit like a brick wall' one day when she was driving into Preston and had to stop the car when she found herself in floods of tears.

She says: "It was the sudden realisation of all that had happened in what seemed only a short time, and how you've been coping because of strengths built up in the work you've done in difficult circumstances, particularly with children."

It could also have been due to the hugely emotional relief felt after Lee - wife of Kate's son Shawn and mother of six year old Phoebe - made a full recovery following successful treatment at Chorley Hospital.

Kate could not praise the staff there highly enough... "a brilliant hospital," she says, "and the cancer nurse and staff were all absolutely wonderful."

Her own childhood instincts of 'always wanting to be a nanny' must have been to the fore then, although Kate could look back to her first job after leaving Longridge Secondary Modern School (now Longridge High) being with something nannies always need - and that's soap!

After early education with Miss Winder at Longridge Council School in Chapel Street - where both her mother and grandfather, George Blezard, were pupils - Kate left the senior school at 14 and started work at Margerison's White Windsor soap factory at Longridge's Victoria Mill.

"Verbena, lemon, rose and lavender were soap scents I remember best, and I packaged, stamped designs and wrapped the soaps," Kate recalled.

Her interests in children prevailed for the next job - actually being a nanny to Lucy White, a little girl in Goosnargh who had Down's Syndrome - and then it was on to work for the Boys and Girls Welfare Society in Manchester and then a very enlighteningl few years with the Bethesda Special School for physically handicapped children in Cheadle.

"I was 17 by then and helped with four to 16 year olds, three staff to 12 children in bungalows and houses on this special estate," Kate remembers.

"I went out on day release to Stockport College to study child health, welfare and psychology, and we were very lucky to be 'adopted' as special friends of cast members from Coronation Street such as Pat Phoenix, Violet Carson and Jack Howarth.

"They would take some of the more able-bodied children out occasionally, and sometimes I would travel home on the train with them. They'd save me a seat and they all lived in Lytham St Annes!

"My world was really opened up in those three Cheadle years and I still keep in touch with Thelma Woodhall, who's now in her eighties and lives in Derby."

Feeling a need to be back nearer home, Kate then worked with the Shepherd Street Mission and Children's Home in Preston, where she was a senior house mother and given the job by committee member Miss EM Margerison - part of the Margerison 'soap' family where Kate first ventured out into the world of work.

Marriage to Tony at St Lawrence's Church in Longridge followed in 1969, and Kate then entered upon village life in Ribchester, starting a playgroup with a bunch of friends in their own homes.

This snowballed into the now thriving RibTots, Kate also started Ribchester Brownies and Guides, spent a year on the RATS committee, and again with friends, set up the Ribchester Charity Committee raising funds particularly to aid local people in need.

For 'something to do' in 1977, she joined Knowle Green and Dutton WI and is now in her third term as president as well as being the outings secretary.

At the moment, however, it's outings with granddaughter Phoebe that are on the cards for Easter and, with granddad Jim, they're continuing the accent on youth and children and are off to Centre Parcs in the Lake District.

As Kate intimated at the beginning of this profile, she and Jim may well return home tired out, but Phoebe should certainly continue to keep them going.