For over two decades, the Sara Lee Trust has been working to improve the lives of people with cancer and other life-limiting illnesses living in Hastings and Rother.
The trust delivers over 80 hours of therapy care per week to local people, including patients of St Michael’s Hospice, the Conquest and The Rye, Winchelsea and District Memorial Hospital.
But after a survey suggested that a large number of people were missing out on some of the treatments provided by the Sara Lee Trust, the charity decided to build a new therapy centre in one of the most deprived areas in the locality, where mortality rates for cancer stand head and shoulders above its neighbours.
Dan Redsull, chief executive of the Sara Lee Trust tells me: “Sidley’s mortality rates for cancer are 40 to 50 per cent higher than other areas locally.
“It’s life expectancy is 10 years lower.
“It’s an extremely deprived area where the need for our services is very high.
“We did a local survey asking about the needs for our services and a lot of people said there was an acute need for our services.”
But many of those in need of help struggle to make the journey to the Conquest or St Michael’s, particularly patients in pain and left at the mercy of public transport.
So in 2015, the Sara Lee Trust decided to build a new therapy centre in the heart of Sidley, to ensure the charity could reach out to those who desperately needed its services, but found it difficult to access them.
The charity bought an empty retail unit in Ninfield Road and set about extending it, turning it into a charity shop.
Mr Redsull said: “We purchased the building at the beginning of 2015.
“The shop was an old bank which had a one tonne safe in it and a shared entrance with the flat upstairs.
“It did not function as a shop, it had been on the market for several years.
“So we needed to make it into something which could bring in income for the trust.”
Once the shop opened, Sara Lee’s third in Bexhill, the trust turned its attention to the derelict plot of land behind the building.
After successfully negotiating the planning process, building work on the new therapy centre started six months ago, with the new facility due to open next month.
On Tuesday (June 13) the Sara Lee Trust invited the Observer to see the work in progress.
Walking up to the building, it is clear that much work is still needed on the outside space, which is littered with rubble and hardcore.
“This is all going to be landscaped with space for car parking and disability access,” the trust’s fundraising manager Maria Gonet tells me.
But stepping inside the building is another matter, with the contractors having created a light and airy space, perfect for the group and one-to-one therapy sessions offered by the trust.
While trying not to get under the feet of the numerous workmen, we are shown the three therapy rooms in the centre.
A large room upstairs will be used for group therapy, while a smaller, more intimate, not to mention heavily soundproofed, room will be used for one-to-one and family therapy sessions.
Another large room on the ground floor also lends itself to both group activities and one-to-one sessions if desired.
Sunlight streams in through the many windows and patio doors, with the team keen to bring the outside inside with a calm green oasis tucked away in the heart of Sidley centre.
Michael Lear, chair of the trustee board, said: “It’s going to be like a secret garden.
“It’s going to be a beautiful enclosed labyrinth and have water features.
“Even though it’s in the middle of the town, we think it’s going to be a real oasis.”
Granted the outdoor space, which had been derelict for many years, still looks like a building site, but Michael speaks with such passion it is easy to picture the lush greenery and hear the calming trickle of the water features.
The building refurbishment is costing the Sara Lee Trust £160,000, with a family legacy covering some of the cost.
Mr Redsull said: “We were very fortunate that through a family legacy on Sara Lee we were able to buy the freehold of the property.
“We have been very fortunate to receive almost £100,000 from charitable trusts and other funders towards the work, including noticeable support from the Bexhill League of Friends who donated £24,500.”
Other big donors include Bexhill Rotary Club, the Cooden Beach Golf Club and St Leonards Motors Group, as well as national charities.
A donors board will be put up in the centre once opened.
The three Bexhill charity shops will help towards the running costs of the centre, along with various fundraising events, organised by Ms Gonet.
Mr Redsull said: “We are reliant on public support whether it be fundraising or donations.”
He added: “We had to look at the building and think what was really possible. It took quite a while. But it was important whatever we did that we were sustainable, that it was affordable and that it was patient and service user led. We got people involved to understand what the needs were.”
The Sara Lee Trust service user group played a major role in getting the project off the ground. The chair of the group, Helen Illger, said: “The whole idea about the centre is to make sure it works for the people who need to use it.
“It’s covering a vital area of the Hastings and Rother district because there’s nothing on this side.
“We feel there’s a lot of people who would benefit from what the Sara Lee Trust provides but may have concerns about visiting an end of life service setting and feel this service would be ideal for them.”
Mr Redsull added: “We have done a survey of referers and the feedback was a large proportion who would prefer to be seen in this type of setting.
“Also we have got people who are unable to travel long distances who can be seen closer in their community.
“If you travel a long way, often you need people to accompany you. And people do not want to travel because you are talking about people who are very ill and travel often causes pain and discomfort.
“So there’s a whole plethora of reasons why local care often is more appropriate.”
The new centre will be opened by the service user group on July 15. The centre will be open between 11am and 4pm on that day for visitors to have a look around.