A year after Leonard Cheshire's death, his homes for the disabled are thriving, Angus Macdonald found
WHEN HER Majesty the Queen chose to recall the example of the late Leonard Cheshire in her Christmas Message to the Commonwealth this year, it was not for his wartime bravery, nor even for his lifetime of service to the disabled the ---_on which he established for people with physical, mental and learning disabilities now runs 270 homes in more than 50 countries around the world.
What had struck her was that even in his own adversity he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in early 1992 he continued, as he had done all his life, to hope and plan for a better life for others. He embodied, as she put it, "kindness in another's trouble, courage in one's own".
But praise for his achievements from no matter how exalted a source was something which Leonard Cheshire always gracefully deflected.
He believed that the greatest successes in life were those that came without praise, and preferred to see his achievements as proof that others who might otherwise feel they were too small and insignificant to confront the porblenas facing humanity could do the same.
In seeking to meet the needs of the disabled, he believed, able-bodied people were in any case meeting their own needs. "We need the disabled, the sick and the poor to teach us a balanced view of life," he once said.
The story of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, OM, DSO, DFC has been told many times the dashing young bomber pilot who was awarded the Victoria Cross after le-asling countless dangerous missions over Germany, and who observed the dropping of the second atomic bomb over Nagasaki in 1945.
Although he had grown up without religion, and had no faith during the war, surviving where so many others had not affected him deeply: "It made me think, you can't just go back and earn a nice living. You must try to do something to build a better world."
He took in and cared for a dying airman, Arthur Sykes a Catholic who had lost his faith and found it again shortly before his death and the experience led him to reassess his own attitude to
Sykes became the first resident of the first Cheshire Home, and in 1948 after the airman's death Cheshire became a Catholic. It was a faith which came to be at the heart of everything he did.
Over the next 40 years, the Leonard Cheshire Foundation (Cheshire, with typical humility, initially objected to the use of his name) grew to become one of the largest
voluntary sector charities, expanding its activities to offer personal care to people with disabilities in their own homes, as well as day and respite care.
In 1959, Cheshire married Sue Ryder, who herself "without funds and on faith" had established a number of homes for the sick and disabled in the aftermath of the war.
It became a unique partnership, in which both sought to put Christ's teachings into practical effect supporting one another the better to achieve that end.
In 1992, after a lifetime spent caring for the disabled, he found himself confined to a wheelchair with motor neurone disease.
Others saw it as a moving irony, but to Cheshire himself it was a natural part of God's plan: "Suddenly I can call myself 'we' the disabled, not 'you' the disabled," he would say in public. "It is a great bless
But in private, however, Lady Ryder knew that he wanted to live if only to carry on with his work. He died, nursed devotedly by her, in July 1992.
A year on, the foundation faces new challenges how to maintain the integrity and principles of his original vision without allowing the organisation to stagnate, how to cope with the increasing demand for Cheshire Homes in countries abroad, and how to respond to the mixed blessings of the new "care in the Community" policy at home.
The Director-General of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, James Stanford, is conscious of the great responsibility bequeathed by the founder, but is convinved that change is essential: "The commitment we feel those who come after is to ensure that the outposts he created are built on and strengthened."
He outlines a strategy which involves an increased commitment to the work of the foundation internationally, a greater emphasis on backing local groups which initiate projects of their own, and a drive to increase public awareness of the foundation's work.
These are steps Cheshire would have approved of, he maintains, but there is much still to be done: "All we've done so far is to put down a footprint. Now it's up to us to make that a track in the sand."
The final word to Lady Ryder, who encapsulates the essential message of both her and her husband's life's work: "Our joint prayer was always that together we would be able to relieve suffering. Everything else was totally peripheral."
Further details about the work of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation can be obtained by writing to it at 26-29 Maunsel Street, London SW1P 2QN or by telephoning 071-976 5704.