Peer Supporter shortlisted for award for her efforts supporting children and families

Posted: 06/06/24

Kristina Whitworth, 43, from West Cumbria, works as a Peer Supporter in our North Cumbria Children’s Learning Disability and Behaviour Support Service. She also supports local NHS Children’s Mental Health Teams.

Kristina’s own son has additional needs, and she has used her experiences to find new ways to support other families and their children.

Over the past few years this has included setting up a drop-in support group for the families of the children her team supports. She has also trained up her dog Honey to be a qualified therapy animal.

She has been shortlisted for ‘NHS/Keyworker of the Year’ in Newsquest’s Pride of Cumbria Awards 2024.

Kristina’s Peer Support Facilitator, Laura Wilson, nominated her for the award. “I think all of our Peer Supporters deserve an award for sharing their own lived experiences and stories in their work every day,” Laura says.

“Kristina’s efforts have helped parents to get practical and emotional support that I don’t think they’d have had access to if it wasn’t for the drop-ins she set up.

“And her blue-sky thinking, getting her own dog Honey trained and certified as a therapy dog to work in services, has been inspiring.

“We’re all thrilled that she has been shortlisted and recognised for what she does.”

Therapy dog Honey

Kristina had seen how Honey – a five-year-old Cockapoo – interacted with her own children and what a difference she made to their family’s wellbeing.

“In 2021 I decided to take the plunge and get Honey officially certified with People and Animal Wellbeing Services (PAWS) as a Therapy Dog. I felt it was really important to do that, to make sure Honey would be safe and able to happily do what I was asking of her.

“The certification cost £2000 – half of which came from National Lottery funding, and the rest was donated by my amazingly supportive colleagues and friends.”

“People have really got on board and supported it – I couldn’t have done it without everybody else.”

After many months of training and hard work, Honey passed her certification assessment in March 2024.

Kristina admits, “There’s been times I’ve gone, this is so much harder than I anticipated – it’s hours of extra work – but I didn’t want to let people down, and I’m so glad we’ve done it now!

“We’ve gathered a lot of feedback along the way, and using rating scales we’ve shown that just having a dog present can make a difference to someone’s anxiety in an appointment.”

Laura agrees. “I’ve seen first-hand how Honey has had really transformative effects on children.

“In some cases the team have really been struggling to engage a young person in any kind of therapy or treatment, and things feel stuck. But then we’ve brought Honey in for a session, and you can see their anxiety is down, they’re engaging with the therapy.

“Patients have told us Honey makes them feel safe, calm, happy, and relaxed.”

Kristina has recently been preparing Honey to provide some specific support to a patient. “At the moment we are supporting a young girl who has a lot of trauma around medical appointments, but is in desperate need of some tests.

“So, we are going to bring Honey in to do some ‘graded exposure therapy’ where this young girl can use a toy stethoscope on Honey, bandage her paw, and so on. I’ve been practicing at home to make sure Honey will tolerate it calmly. The idea is that this young girl can get used to seeing and being around these medical-looking instruments and gain some confidence.”


Drop-ins for families

Kristina also started a regular support group for the families and carers of children her team were supporting.

“Parental wellbeing can be the elephant in the room,” she explains. “Sometimes as a parent, you don’t feel listened to. You get professionals coming in and working on particular behaviours or problems, but you don’t get a lot of support with how to just deal with and process all the challenges that come with having a child with additional needs.

“So, I’ve just tried to be the voice for other parents who are going through similar things.”

Kristina wanted to make sure parents got practical help and find local charities and organisations who might be useful. But the groups have also been a safe space to simply share and talk. “Sometimes, that’s all you need, a place to have a cuppa and offload about what you’re really finding tough today,” Kristina says.

The Pride of Cumbria awards will take place in Wigton on Thursday, 13 June when the winners will be announced.

Alongside her work in the NHS, Kristina regularly fundraises for local charities. Her latest challenge is a 20 mile walk in July to raise cash for Team Evie, a charity supporting families with a child unwell in hospital or who have lost their child. Donate to Kristina’s appeal for Team Evie here.