It was 30 years ago, in September 1987, that my mother, Ann Cullinan, opened the first-ever Acorns Children’s Hospice Shop in Cotteridge, South Birmingham. There are now three hospices and 57 shops, and next year Acorns hopes to reach 60 shops. It is a fantastic legacy of which I’m sure she would be very proud.
Sadly, today also marks the 16th anniversary of her death, and in a week or so, the 16th anniversary of her fundraising funeral, for she used the occasion to make one last appeal for a different charity: the Huntington’s Disease Association.
I was honoured to be asked to visit the Acorns Cotteridge shop to say a few words and help kick off the 30th-year celebrations. It was lovely to meet people who had known Mum, meet the new shop manager, volunteers and Acorns senior management, and also to catch up with family friend Ivor Gornall, who was one of the original ‘Ann’s Army’ volunteers. And it was great to see how the charity is moving forward and building on its early foundations.
I’ve edited the video clips together to include a few others who spoke on the day – it’s just under nine minutes – and one for the family record as well as Acorns. The transcript of my talk is also below.
I’ve blogged about Mum’s involvement in Acorns as the Founder of the Acorns Children’s Hospice Shops previously, and my own visit to Acorns in Selly Oak, which was quite emotional – you can read about it here.
I feel I’ve become a bit of a historian or documenter of that period of Acorns’ history on Mum’s behalf. I have kept all her press clippings, letters and photos, and look forward to continue sharing these so that Acorns’ beginnings as the charity that Birmingham took to its heart won’t be lost.
In Feb 1986 Acorns became a family affair when our mother Ann Cullinan and two friends from Cadbury’s decided to raise £3,000 for the new Children’s Hospice Appeal.
My brother’s main memories are a front room full of black bags, being a phone secretary jotting down all the messages, and still wearing his fave jumper from “Anne’s Boutique.”
My sister brought her young daughters to help cut ribbons and open shops. She remembers when the scout hut with hundreds of donations was burned down a week or so before a new shop opened, and Mum using the fire as a PR strategy to get into the newspapers. She ended up with twice the donations.
I was a teenager at the time and helped collect donations, sort clothes and do the colouring in on posters.
But we weren’t the only ones galvanised into action. Ann’s Army – also known as the AA team – were a band of around 30 volunteers and helpers, many of them fellow employees and friends from Cadbury’s. Mum was known as The Commander in Chief and, although she was actually quite a shy person, she was determined – in fact, she like a woman possessed when it came to fundraising for Acorns. She always said she could never ask for anything for herself but she could ask for everything for the children and families who would desperately needed the new hospice.
Some examples of those crazy times –
- Shops never had an opening, they had a GRAND opening
- barge pulls
- antique road shows
- a giant turkey auction –
- belly dancers
- marching majorettes –
- fashion shows
- rocking horse rides
- the BRMB Walkathon –
- letters went out to Adrian Cadbury, local business, Princess Diana
- celebrity casts from the Xmas panto were roped in
- photo opps, radio broadcasts and handwritten press releases
Mum was always sitting quietly writing with pen and pad in her armchair slowly changing the world one letter at a time. And such direct letters!
People always said yes. She would just look straight into people’s eyes, tell them what she was raising funds for, smile – then wait. She would unleash this massive human warmth that made people feel good about giving. If she needed a van, one would appear; a shop, one would become available; some carpet, she’d get the number for the NEC and somehow end up with thousands of square yards of conference carpet.
It was fun. But always driven by the kids who needed care.
To put a couple of figures on those early days:
- From a £3k initial target, a cheque for £20,800 was presented to the trustees by Les Dawson and Ruth Madoc within a year.
- The first shop, in 15 weeks, raised £30,000 – around £2000 turnover per week.
- A year later it had contributed £100,000 (Sept 1988)
- By 1990 Ann’s Army had raised £350,000, had opened in Stirchley and were ready to open a third shop in Kings Heath.
I know she would be so proud of what has been achieved since that first shop opened 30 years. I have some photos and letters and posters showing the fundraising work of those early days, and a picture of the first Cotteridge shop volunteers if anyone would like to see them.
I am honoured to be invited here to represent the Founder of the Acorns Children’s Hospice Shops, and the involvement of Ann’s Army of volunteers. Mum always brought it back to the children so I’ll finish with her words to the volunteers 28 years ago:
” Since we opened our first temporary shop we have, by our combined efforts, contributed nearly £200,000 to help those unfortunate children and their families get support and be given respite care. I have witnessed the relief and gratitude by parents who are using Acorns and its facilities. I wish it were possible for each of you to do the same. Whilst the staff at Acorns may have direct contact with the children, you are an essential part of the team. Without your efforts, life would be much more difficult for all concerned.” [Ann Cullinan, 15/9/89]