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Meeting Sandra Welch of the Seafarers Hospital Society

21 September 2020

Best known for its Dreadnought Medical Service, the Seafarers Hospital Society provides health and welfare grants to seafarers and their dependants, and to the maritime organisations that care for them. During lockdown, Helen Kelly spoke with incoming chief executive Sandra Welch, who described the challenges and opportunities of taking on a new job during a global pandemic

Helen Kelly (HK): Congrats on the new role; how have the first 100 days been?

Sandra Welch (SW): It has been a very interesting first 100 days, starting a new job with such a great organisation during a global pandemic.

HK: Talk about a baptism of fire, how has Covid changed your approach to the job?

SW: The pandemic, of course, has changed everything. All the normal team building things you do when joining an organisation, meeting with staff or having a cup of tea is difficult.

We kept the office in Greenwich open during the lockdown, with my colleagues able to walk or cycle in each day, and with appropriate social distancing. I am working from home and talk to my colleagues every day via video. I don't know what we would have done without video technology.

HK: What was the transition like from your previous role?

SW: I worked with the Sailors' Society for six years as director of programme. I literally finished on the Friday and started my new role on the Monday morning. Suddenly, here I was bringing new ways of working to the Seafarers Hospital Society. So I had to find a new headspace very quickly and start working in a very different way.

I went from providing frontline services every single day across 30 countries and several time zones to working strategically – and very focused – at a much smaller organisation, but actually, an organisation that has huge influence. So, it was about changing focus quickly, forcing yourself to think in a different way.

HK: What is your business strategy for the Seafarers Hospital Society?

SW: I see our strategy as a living document that is always under review and changing, so that we are not bound to one way of working. And I think, actually, that is very wise in this environment where our world is changing all the time and we don't really know what the future holds.

HK: How would you describe the ethos of the Seafarers Hospital Society?

SW: We are historically best known for our medical aid via the Dreadnought services. That's where our background is and people recognise us as doing that. We look after the health and wellbeing of seafarers and fishers, providing elective surgery and offering elective medical treatment including dental treatment. We treat seafarers and fishers with workplace injuries or conditions to help them back to work.

HK: Has the service continued during the pandemic?

SW: Due to government restrictions during the lockdown, all elective surgery in the UK was put on hold including the Dreadnought Medical Service. But it will reopen once the country is past Covid-19, starting with people currently on the waiting list. In the meantime, we can provide physiotherapy consultations via video conferencing.

During Covid-19 it's important that people stay fit. There's a lot of concerns about jobs and employment and no-one wants to be out of a job because of an injury that can be easily treated. It's really important that these services continue.

HK: Has your grant-giving continued during the pandemic?

SW: We spent 50% more in April (first quarter) than we had in the previous quarter, with a huge influx of grants, which went to fishers and Merchant Navy professionals.  

HK: How does the Seafarers Hospital Society secure its funding?

SW: We're a little bit different to other charities. We don't fundraise as a way of bringing in money to the charity. We have an investment portfolio that funds most of our projects, and we work with other charities to set up programmes where we put in 'match funding' together (ie split the funding).

HK: How does someone get referred to the Seafarers Hospital Society?

SW: People can be referred via the NHS, by health official in the community, or a GP. Our health development manager will then assess the individual's needs to see if we can help.

HK: What other charities do you work with?

SW: We're a small charity with only five employees, so we work in partnership with other organisations to implement programmes. We are a member of the Maritime Charities Group, which brings together all the main UK based maritime charities. We also work with the Seafarers' Advice and Information Line (SAIL), with the Fishermen's Mission, and with the Nautilus Welfare Fund, helping support retired seafarers with financial assistance.

HK: Tell me some more about yourself – have you always been in the charities sector?

SW: Up until recently I was director of programme at the Sailors' Society, where I introduced and developed a portfolio of projects. We doubled the number of chaplains working at ports, from 30, and extended the portfolio that they had.

Before that I worked for the Salvation Army for about 18 years, initially as a minister, and then doing community development programmes in Africa on HIV and AIDS programmes and other development programmes within Southern Africa. It was amazing work, looking into poverty relief for vulnerable children and lots of medical projects.

HK: What is the best thing about your job?

SW: I moved into the charity sector because it is about making a difference to people's lives. And actually, there's nothing better than when you see the difference that it makes in somebody's life. At Sailors Society our chaplains would talk about how they were present when a seafarer got access to wi-fi at port, for example, and a new dad met his baby for the first time via the internet. Or making a difference to people so that they can face each day because they have a mental health issue. Or providing a lifeline service. Or hardship grant.

You are making a difference to society in a very small way, but in a big way to that individual.


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