Eleven years ago Sara Davenport had a vision to create havens for people with breast cancer. Catherine Scott met her.
“Everyone with breast cancer should have access to free complementary therapies,” says Sara Davenport.
As founder of the Breast Cancer Haven, now just Haven, 14 years ago it this overriding belief which has seen the Havens grow from one in London to three, Hereford and Leeds and now plans to role them out nationally.
“I want everybody to be able to access a Haven no matter where they live,” say Sara, an ardent believer in the power of complementary therapy to heal.
She is trained in kinesiology and other complimentary therapies and works three days a week as a therapist at the London Haven.
“I am a spiritual person. I believe we all are in some way. I also believe that in order for the body to heal itself you need to have a complete approach for the mind and the body.
“The medical profession does the treatment bit very well but the other side of things gets left behind. You have to look at the stress and the human system. We are all different and that’s why at the Haven everyone is given their own individual programme.
The idea for the Haven came after her nanny, Wendy, developed breast cancer 14 years ago and she was shocked by the lack of emotional help and support from the medical fraternity.
“At first I thought Wendy was just unlucky, but then I began to meet a lot of other people who had the same sort of stories to tell.
“I knew the NHS was hard-pressed but I could not believe that the system could be so chaotic and uncaring.”
She started to investigate and found that there were a lot of different forms of support for cancer sufferers but they were scattered in different places.
“What I felt was needed was a place where all different forms of advice and help were all under one roof, free of charge and where you would have the chance to talk to others who could understand what you were going through,” says Sara.
She approached the existing breast cancer charities with her idea and offered to do the necessary fund-raising, but they were more interested in the research side of the disease, rather than the emotional support women affected needed.
“They kept telling me it wasn’t needed, but I knew they were wrong. I soon realised that no-one else was going to move forward and that if I wanted it to happen I was going to have to do it myself.”
At the time she was 34 with two young children and running an art gallery in London specialising in 19th century dog paintings.
She soon realised that the only way she could pursue her dream was to sell her beloved gallery, something she had dedicated her life to for the previous 12 years.
“It was a terrible dilemma,” she admits. “I loved my gallery and it made me lots of money, but it was time for a change. I thought I would really miss it, but as soon as I sold it I never gave it another thought.”
He friends and family thought she was slightly mad to give up the world she knew to set up a breast cancer charity – she knew nothing about breast cancer or how to run a charity.
But the more people who told her she couldn’t do it, the more determined she became to prove them all wrong.
“I believe very strongly that when things are meant to happen, they happen easily. Doors open.”
Two years later she was looking for a building for her first Haven. And that search was not easy. “It is very, very important to me that the premises have the right feeling; the right energy. I’m incredibly sensitive to that.”
The first Haven was built in a derelict church in Fulham Broadway, London. Using her determination, charm and selling skills, Sara managed to get help to transform the church, opening her first Haven in 2000 – three years after she set up the charity.
“It was a case of beg, borrow or steal, but people were incredibly generous. I suppose it was different times, businesses had more to spare, but even so some of the generosity blew me away.
She recalls doing a presentation for Furniture Village for some sofas and by then end they offered to furnish the Haven in its entirety as well as any others Sara opened.
“People are just amazing. Someone offered us a kitchen from the bottom of their range which was fine but by the end they gave us a top of the range kitchen. It was, and still is, incredible.”
The Hereford Haven swiftly followed and then, three years ago, the Leeds Haven.
“I wanted a Haven in the middle of the country, but I had never even been to Leeds before. I was stunned by its energy. It was like New York in the middle of England.”
But she then started her search for a suitable building. The other two Havens are in old converted buildings but all the old buildings she looked at in Leeds just weren’t right.
“Then someone suggested looking at the Gateway building. I didn’t think I was going to like it – it wasn’t even finished. But as soon as I walked into the space I knew that it would be right. It had the energy I wanted and it hasn’t disappointed me. It also meant that we could have a say in how the building was finished.”
Despite a successful £2.2m appeal to make the Leeds Haven a reality, they still only rented the building and it was Sara’s desire to own it outright, so last year another appeal was launched which successfully raised £1.2m to purchase the building and therefore secure the Haven’s future in Leeds.
Sara is first to point out that the Haven “empire” would not have been possible without armies of volunteers, trustees and therapists.
“I just had the idea, everyone else made it possible. I want the Havens to run independently of me; they have to.”
That is why she very quickly went about setting up a board of trustees, one of whom is the Countess of Wessex.
“My talent is for starting things not running them. I don’t have plans, I have ideas, it is all the other people who make them a reality.”
She admits however that there are already plans to extend the Haven family further, with two more expected to open in the next three or four years and the ambition being to eventually have seven or eight across the country.
The Leeds Haven has helped more than 1,000 women and a handful of men, since Girls Aloud singer Kimberley Walsh opened it in 2008. Recent research by the charity found that 89 per cent of visitors found the therapies essential to their recovery.
All new visitors are invited to an introduction day which includes sessions on of healthy eating and meal planning, some relaxation and meditation techniques. They are then given a programme which includes nine free sessions of complementary therapies.
“I have been interested in complementary therapies and their power for the last 25 years, but I never thought they would have such a big part to play in my life,” says Sara.
She does believe that the NHS has come along way in its treatment of breast cancer survivors since her nanny first contracted the disease.
“Things are better, but I still believe, especially in these hard times, for everyone to have access to a Haven.”
Haven’s helping hand
HRH The Prince of Wales is the charity’s Patron.
Nearly 50 per cent of visitors are referred by their doctor or breast care nurse.
Since the first Haven opened, more than 8,109 women, men and families have been helped
Leeds has had 1,130 visitors since opening in 2008.
The support programme is also available through The Haven’s website
The most popular therapies are: acupuncture, nutrition and counselling. Each new visitor receives nine therapies free.
A host of fundraising activities are planned throughout Breast Cancer Awarness month and beyond for details visit www.thehaven.org.uk or call 0113 284 7800.