Michael Kitching is the CEO of Headway Norfolk and Waveney, a charity which aims to improve lives impacted by brain injury. Ahead of a fundraising event, which will involve him abseiling down The Forum in Norwich, he explains why it’s a charity very close to his heart
When Michael Kitching’s aunt suffered a massive brain injury in 2018, it had a massive impact on his family – and, ultimately, his career. The CEO of Headway Norfolk and Waveney says: ‘She was on holiday in Italy – it was the first holiday she and my uncle had ever had overseas. We don’t quite know what happened, but she had a stroke. She was getting out of bed and – because she had left sided weakness – she fell and hit her head. She had a massive brain injury, and they were rushed from hospital to hospital in Italy.’
As Michael had started his career in political campaigns, before moving into charity fundraising, working for charities big and small as well as other organisations in and around Westminster, he knew what to do.
‘I was on the phone to the Foreign Office and got people to help my uncle on the Saturday it happened. They were there for three or four months in Italy then they got flown back by air ambulance, on their insurance.’
Initially, Michael’s aunt spent months in Hull, then Lincoln, before ending up in long term rehab in Nottinghamshire. ‘My poor uncle was in Lincolnshire and was having to commute two/three hours each way every day – then the pandemic put a stop to it.’
The family’s experience led Michael to taking stock of his career. He was already living in Norfolk, where his partner is from, and reflects: ‘After the pandemic, I thought I wanted to do something different. I thought it was time to go back to the charity sector. I really wanted to do something with brain injury and the day I looked in the paper it just so happened that this job had been advertised.
‘I then spoke to the outgoing CEO and the Chair about what they thought they needed and my skills sort of matched, so it was almost fate.’
Michael’s aunt spent four years in a coma. ‘She passed away last year back in October, so she was still alive for about another year but very much sort of in lockdown in the care place she was in. It tore my family’s lives apart. My mum and her sister were very, very close – my aunt was like my second mother in effect. To see what my family went through made me want to do something here.’
Research suggests there are about 3000 people who need support from a charity such as Headway Norfolk and Waveney. ‘When I started, we were probably helping 150. We are now up to about 300 people but there’s that huge gap of people who really aren’t getting that support.’ People with a brain injury can refer themselves to Headway; be referred by friends or family, or by professionals such as a GP.
Although the county-wide charity is affiliated to Headway UK, the national charity, Michael says: ‘We are totally independent as a charity, so we’ve got our own trustees, and we have our own rules of how we do things.’ Headway Norfolk and Waveney is a relatively large concern, with staff of around 50 people.
The charity supports people with a brain injury from causes such as stroke, encephalitis, brain tumours and traumatic brain injuries caused by things such as cycling accidents, road traffic collisions and falls.
‘Brain injury is different for everybody,’ as Michael adds, ‘and can be something like a concussion – that is something we see a lot of in sport. People can have post-concussion syndrome which goes on for the rest of their life.’
He continues: ‘A simple punch to the back of the head on a night out can change someone’s life forever. It’s not predictable. There’s no build up to it like there is with a lot of diseases or illnesses.’
Since he started as CEO, in September 2021, Michael has overseen significant changes. ‘We’ve moved out of almost every building we were in. And we’ve gone from having three day-care centres across Norfolk to seven – with plans to open an eighth this year.’ Currently, the day centres are in King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Norwich, Long Stratton, Dereham and Aylsham.
Headway is on the lookout for more volunteers. Michael says: ‘We’ve got a good volunteer network in King’s Lynn, but we could always do with more volunteers in Norwich and South Norfolk – and the Great Yarmouth area.’
He adds: ‘We’ve added outreach support, so we now help people in their homes,’ says Michael, before adding: ‘Perhaps they want to learn how to use a bus again, so someone will go on the bus with them; or perhaps they want to learn how to cook a recipe or how to work out their bills.’
Other services include Support Groups and Private Occupational Therapy Led Packages. And a recent project was a DJ Skills Workshop. Michael says: ‘We are trying to do a few more things for younger people. ‘We accept people from the age of 18, and there’s no upper age limit.
‘We’re always adding new things. One of the challenges I set when I started was that we needed to have a bit more variety, and all these things add a bit of variety to people’s days. If our clients ask for something we’ll try and find a way to do it, basically.’
The next big fundraising event takes place in Norwich on August 26, with the Headway and Nansa Abseil Challenge: Conquer the Forum.
‘I’m doing it and I’ve got an absolute fear of heights.’ But, despite being terrified at the prospect, he says: ‘It’s one of those things where if you’re going to ask someone to sponsor you, you should actually do something that’s a challenge!’
He says of his role as CEO: ‘It’s the best job I’ve ever had by a country mile – I absolutely love it and I love a change project and making a big impact on things. It’s been like that since day one.
‘I think back to what the charity was like back in September 2021, it’s a totally different thing now it’s one of the few things I’ll say I’m quite proud about but it’s down to a lot of people – the core team here and staff.’
It’s a world away from politics. ‘The way you can change things and help people more is by doing things like this with a good feeling at the end of the day.
‘There will always be people with brain injuries – we can’t stop that – but we can do our best to help people back into work or into voluntary things or just be able to enjoy life on their own. There is a way back for people.’
Does he think his aunt would have been proud of what he is doing? ‘I hope so. I’d rather we’d never had to deal with any of the brain injury side of things, but I imagine she would be.’
Featured images – supplied by Headway Norfolk and Waveney