Sands Lothians Case Study: Engage students | Raise awareness | Make a difference

Following the tragic loss of her own baby son, Nicola Welsh volunteered with SANDS Lothians for five years before she became the charity’s Chief Executive in 2015.  Nicola has had contact with six different YPI groups and has developed ongoing relationships with two groups from James Gillespie’s High School and Bathgate Academy since she came into post two years ago. Below Nicola shares her experience of working with YPI groups and the benefits that it can have for charities, beyond the winning the grant money.

SANDS Lothians is an Edinburgh based charity that has been offering support, practical and emotional help to bereaved parents who have experienced the death of a baby for over thirty years. Although it was originally part of SANDS UK, SANDS Lothians became an independent charity 20 years ago when they started employing paid staff and offering a counselling service. SANDS Lothians prides itself on being the only Scottish charity which offers bespoke counselling for people who have experienced baby loss. In addition to counselling, the charity runs a number of support groups based on families’ needs including subsequent pregnancy, mothers and toddlers and IVF and infertility groups.

The charity received a YPI grant from Bathgate Academy in 2016. SANDS Lothians’ plan for this grant is two-fold.  Nicola plans to spend part of the grant on items for the memory bags which SANDS Lothians make up and give to each family following the death of their baby.  These help them to create precious memories of their child and include a handmade, silver heart keepsake.  Part of the heart keepsake stays with the baby while the parents keep the other half. Since the charity was awarded the grant by Bathgate Academy in West Lothian, some of these memory bags will be given to St John’s Hospital in West Lothian. It is extremely important to Nicola that SANDS Lothians is able to sustain the memory bags in the long term.

“YPI gives students some time to explore issues that exist in their local community, and the opportunity to be a voice and make a difference to a charity that they’re interested in.  It’s win, win for everyone.”

Sustaining the charity’s counselling and befriending services is also a priority. 211 families have been supported through befriending and 500 free counselling sessions have been provided for 50 families during the last year alone and resources are now stretched.  In addition to this, there is also a need to provide counselling and a support group for families who have lost older children.  Nicola plans to spend part of the grant on training a member of staff as a support group facilitator and counsellor to meet these families’ needs.

However, the benefits and impact of YPI for SANDS Lothians extends far beyond the £3000 grant.  Nicola believes that young people are future voices for charities and that it is important to harness their enthusiasm, engage them in the third sector and encourage them to look at a career which is about more than money.  She also believes that every student who contacts her deserves a response and should be invited to visit the charity because they’ve made the effort to get in touch and will help SANDS Lothians to raise awareness about baby loss through YPI.

Nicola tells us, “We are really busy and nobody works full time but if you work for a charity that you really believe in, you’re keen to share it with others because you’re passionate about what you do.  Being a local charity, it makes sense to invite them in.  Regardless of whether they win the grant or not, they’re about to educate more young people.  You might meet 3,4 or 6 young people but they’re about to educate 100 – 300 others and they all learn about the issues.  They may either need our support in the future or they may know someone who does.” 

Louise Jack, YPI Social Impact Coordinator with students from James Gillespie’s at Sands Lothians.

Nicola’s ongoing relationship with a group of students from James Gillespie’s High School is a prime example of the benefits and impact of YPI for the charity. Even though the girls didn’t win a YPI grant for SANDS Lothians, they have remained involved with the charity since finishing their YPI programme with the girls volunteering their time to –

  • Pack the memory bags
  • Help out with arts and crafts activities at SANDS Lothians’ Mother’s Day family events.
  • Two of the girls played the clarsach, a Scottish harp, during SANDS Lothians’ Christmas remembrance service for bereaved families.
  • Another member of the group has been volunteering for a couple of hours each week to develop and update the charity’s website. This has allowed her to complete the Volunteering Section of her Gold DofE Award.

On top of their volunteering commitment, the girls succeeded in raising awareness about SANDS Lothians and the issue of baby loss in their school and raising additional funds for the charity by selling candy canes and charity pin badges at Christmas time.

Nicola admits that she has encountered a few challenges when supporting YPI groups. Making time for staff to meet with students is the main challenge for a small charity. Nicola explains that if YPI groups cancel meetings, she finds herself thinking that she should be supporting bereaved parents instead. “If you say that you’re going to commit to YPI as a school then all teachers need to be on board. Teachers and students need to think about the implications of cancelling meetings, communication dropping off and how valuable time is for staff and volunteers working for a small charity with limited resources.”

Nicola also says that she always appreciates feedback from students after providing information about the charity by email or inviting groups to visit but sometimes communication stops and she doesn’t know how the presentation has gone or whether they have reached the final.

She emphasises however, that the positives and gains for SANDS Lothians and students outweigh these challenges. “Once you’ve experienced the programme and seen the benefits for young people and the charity, you can’t help but recommend it and encourage others to get involved. There’s so much good being done in the community but how do we hear about it? That’s what YPI is about – giving students some time to explore issues that exist in their local community, giving them an opportunity to be a voice and giving them the opportunity to make a difference to a charity that they’re interested in. It’s win, win for everyone.”