I’ve always admired The Duchess of Cambridge, whether that’s been for her tenacious spirit after overcoming the glare and harassment from the media, to her duty to the crown, her role as a devoted mother, and of course her work with mental health. What’s stood out to me the most over the years though is her focus on the early years, not just the work we see and what has been made visible to us after she joined the royal family, but the work she does behind the scenes, the countless secret visits she makes and her experience and interest in the area before her marriage.
If we cast our minds back to Catherine’s own childhood, we would find nothing but love, happiness, and stability. Perhaps this is the reason why she is so passionate about young people and their mental health, she knows first-hand how much her childhood shaped her and how differently it could have turned out if she wasn’t given the right start in life.
We’ve seen so many instances from before her marriage where she’s been interested in the subject and worked with different children’s charities. If we look back at her gap year shortly after her 19th birthday in 2001, she visited Chile for the Raleigh International Programme. She worked on a number of projects there including a marine survey where she camped on a boat to collect data on organisms and sea life for environmental projects.
She also spent 3 weeks helping to build a fire station in an isolated area. What strikes me the most from this trip though was her interest in helping the children there, it has been said that Catherine enjoyed visiting the local children when she had time off from the programme, she also visited a local school to teach English and played games with them. Perhaps this is where her interest in the early years started and the reason why she is so passionate about it to this day.
Not long after this during her university years, Catherine would become one of forty members of the LUMSDEN club, an all-female association and registered charity that to this day aims to support women, children’s causes, and the arts. The most high-profile events from this club are the annual ‘Secret Garden Party’ charity ball and the ‘Winning Women Conference’ which Catherine no doubt took part in and used to raise money for causes including the early years.
There are so many shining examples of Catherine’s work and efforts for children’s charities before marriage, from organizing events to visiting hospices and taking part in fundraisers.
In 2007, Catherine curated and hosted the ‘Time to reflect’ exhibition of celebrity photographs to raise money for the children’s charity UNICEF. It was her idea to put on the exhibition to showcase the work and launch the book of Alistair Morrison. The sales from the £60 ‘time to reflect’ book were donated to UNICEF and 50% of all other sales on the night were donated to the charity too.
Then in 2008, she helped organise and took part in the 1980s inspired roller disco charity event to raise money for a new surgical ward at Oxfords Children Hospital. She used her profile to get hundreds of supporters to join and the night managed to raise £100,000 for the surgical ward and also for Place2Be – which she is now a patron of.
It wasn’t just fundraisers she was organising and taking part in though when working for her parent’s company ‘party pieces’, Catherine formed the relationship between the company and the Starlight Foundation to provide party essentials to children in hospitals and hospices. The Starlight Foundation became a charity very close to her heart, she attended and helped organise events such as the Boodles Boxing Ball where the money would be raised for different causes including the Starlight Foundation, one night in particular raised £100k.
Dating and becoming engaged to Prince William didn’t deter her interest in the early years, in fact after the engagement of Catherine and William was announced, the couple set up a charitable gift fund and asked that anyone who might wish to give them a wedding gift consider giving instead to their charitable fund. One of the areas chosen by the couple to donate to was ‘Children Fulfilling Their Potential’. The fund in total was raised over £1 million by the general public, well-wishers, and guests at their wedding and was distributed to several children’s charities and causes.
After her marriage, Catherine announced her 4 first patronages, and these were said to have been personally chosen by her to reflect her interests and the issues she wanted to highlight. One of these patronages was East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH) and another was The Art Room, both related to the early years and gave a clear indication of where she wanted her work to be steered towards. Catherine spent months researching the charitable sector and visiting organisations to decide which ones she wanted to be involved with.
St James Palace also announced that the Duchess would become a volunteer with the Scout Association, joining activities privately with groups in north Wales and other areas. The Scout Association is an organisation that aims to provide fun, adventure, and skills for life and give young people the opportunity to enjoy new adventures, experience the outdoors, and take part in a range of activities.
The CEO of EACH, Graham Butland, in 2019 noted how the Duchess had visited some of the families in their own homes because she wanted to continue her support behind the scenes.
“She’s also made private visits to the hospice. She’s visited at least a couple of families in their own homes, all without publicity” he said.
This doesn’t just show her commitment and passion for the early years but shows her genuine care and want to better understand the hardships being faced by so many children and families.
For her first-ever programme, Catherine launched M-PACT Plus for her Patronage, Action on Addiction, in conjunction with Place2Be. This aimed to be a counseling programme to implement into schools to help families with children deal with addiction together.
The Programme was launched in April 2013 after extensive work by Place2Be, Action on Addiction, and Catherine. The pilot of this new programme was funded by The Royal Foundation and Comic Relief which meant trained and fully equipped counselors were able to visit schools and participate in the programme. Following a successful pilot of this programme, place2be applied for an extension for an additional 18 months of the pilot. Once completed, M-PACT Plus was merged back into its parent M-PACT and is now managed successfully by Action on Addiction.
It’s easy to look at programmes and projects that the Duchess has launched and helped create and think it’s easy because she has the resources and money at her disposal, what we don’t see is the copious amount of meetings, visits, talks with professionals, red tape and hard work that go into these projects. They aren’t just thought of one week and then delivered the next, it takes hard work and patience to get an idea developed and launched and Mentally Healthy Schools is a perfect example of this.
This project was launched in 2018 by Catherine as a legacy of the Heads Together campaign. The website was a collaboration between The Anna Freud Centre, Place2Be, and Young Minds and was coordinated and financed by The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Mentally Healthy Schools was offered as a free website for primary schools, providing resources to better understand and promote pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. Getting to the launch however was not a straight and easy path, it took two years of planning, testing and development with The Royal Foundation. Once it was launched, Mentally Healthy Schools saw 250,000 visitors to the site accessing mental health resources showing how successful the project launched by the Duchess really was and how her interest and work in the early year’s sector was paying off.
“I see time and time again that there is so much to be gained from taking the mental health of our children as seriously as we do their physical health.” – The Duchess of Cambridge
It might have come as a surprise to many when they heard about how the Duchess spent two days working at the Kingston Maternity Unit in London. Not to me though, after William had completed work experience at Military Intelligence (MI4/5/6) and GCHQ earlier that year, it was only a matter of time before Catherine did the same but for her area of interest instead. Catherine was said to have divided her time on the unit, visiting the antenatal, postnatal, and labor wards. She even went out on community midwife visits, we didn’t learn much about her work experience though as the Duchess was visiting the unit privately in connection with her Early Years work.
Whilst there are so many brilliant charities, patronages, and projects the Duchess has worked on over the years, I am still surprised by her passion and hard work in the area. Whether it’s launching the first-ever Children’s mental health week, guest-editing on HuffPost to launch the ‘Young Minds Matter series’, to helping create and launching ‘Tiny Happy People’ or organising and planning the donation of 10,000 items to baby banks, the Duchess never fails to impress and deliver on what she had promised all those years ago, to help give children the best possible start to life. The Duchess strives to make a bigger impact and help children from every level, so much so that she created an early years steering group in 2018 to explore how best to support academics, practitioners, and charities in their work to provide all children with the best possible start in life.
This year we saw the Duchess and her steering group launch ‘5 Big Questions’, a landmark survey that was the biggest of its kind in the UK. The Duchess hopes it will provide vital new insights into the nations’ thoughts and concerns on raising young children, she then plans to launch projects and programmes to combat the areas which need the most focus.
Although the Duchess has been working on the early years for most of her adult life, she is just getting started. Her knowledge on the subject is getting stronger and the people she meets every day are helping to shape the way she looks at the world. This will be her legacy, helping children have the best possible start and giving them all the right tools so they are able to begin their life on the right foot.
As Professor Peter Fonagy has said, The Duchess “..is the most important woman doing this in the world right now, to the millions of children who have been suffering in silence, she is their voice”.