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Christine’s helping heart

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Christine Atcheson with her son Ashley Finnigan and his son Judah (Photograph supplied)
Christine Atcheson with a little boy in Uganda helped by her charity Children of Hope (Photograph supplied)
Christine Atcheson enjoying a bit of gardening (Photograph supplied)

In 1979 Christine Atcheson’s life was a mess.

She had been on the island for three years. Her husband had abandoned her and returned to the UK; she had a toddler to raise on her own.

In order to deal, she “went full-on into recreational drugs and alcohol”.

“I was coping with pain and rejection, the only way I knew how,” she said. “My parents weren’t alcoholics but they liked a few drinks. That is what I had seen coming up.”

She struggled to find someone she could confide in. Her friends would have told her “to smoke another joint or have another tequila”.

In desperation, she reached out to her son Ashley’s nursery teacher.

“She had always been very nice, kind and caring,” Ms Atcheson said. “She came over in the evening and I told her my life story. It was shocking for a single mother, and she did not bat an eyelid.

“She just said, ‘I know someone who can help you.’ I said, ‘I have no money. I have been to a psychiatrist and they don’t help. I have been to Alcoholics Anonymous.’”

The teacher’s solution was spiritual; she insisted it wouldn’t cost Ms Atcheson a cent.

“She told me the plan of salvation; of Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit,” she said.

Ms Atcheson, who was born in Manchester, had never been to church. She did not fully understand what the lady was talking about, but she liked her promise that if she gave her “screwed up” life to God, he would make something beautiful of it.

“That sounded like a good deal to me.”

She started attending Paget Gospel Chapel with the teacher.

“They must have wondered what had wandered through the door,” she laughed. “Over the years I have attended different churches. Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. It has to be something that happens on the inside, and then it works its way out.

“It was not overnight by any means. The first year was difficult. But slowly but surely, friends and family noticed that I was different.”

She met her second husband, Carl Atcheson, in church. In 1982 they married and had a son, Nathan. Mr Atcheson’s death, three years later, was a difficult period.

“Slowly but surely I got a heart to want to help people,” Ms Atcheson said. “That has been how it has been ever since.”

It was around that time that she learnt a friend had HIV/Aids.

“At that time there was no antiviral AZT drug,” she said. “Aids was a death sentence.

“Everyone was so frightened of contracting the disease that in the hospital, food for Aids patients would be left in the corridor, and water jugs did not get refilled.”

Patients being treated at home sometimes struggled to get people to deliver groceries.

Wanting to help, she started two charities. STAR provided support to patients and their families. Volunteers would bring groceries or sit with people while their caregivers went for a walk or took a much needed break.

Meanwhile The Lighthouse was a residence for people with the disease who had nowhere else to go.

Volunteers went to conferences overseas to learn as much as they could about the disease.

“We became experts because it did not take much to be an expert in those days,” Ms Atcheson said.

She thinks STAR and The Lighthouse helped hundreds of people over the years.

When AZT was developed in 1987, the members campaigned to have the treatment on the island.

They also advocated for an end-of-life hospice for the terminally ill. Agape House opened in 1991.

“The work was all consuming,” said Ms Atcheson, who is proud that both charities are still in operation today.

Because 98 per cent of the people who then got Aids were addicts, she thought that if she could reduce the number of people who were hooked on drugs she might reduce the number of people who were falling ill.

She went to Hong Kong for training and then in January 1993 opened His House, a rehabilitation programme that was also a home for recovering drug addicts.

“People thought we were running a drug ring,” she said. “It was crazy.

To me it would have been worth it for just one person to get a changed life – that is someone’s son or brother – but there were many. It does your heart good to see them now.”

In 1999 her life took another turn when she went to Uganda to speak at an Aids conference.

“I saw the desperate, desperate situation that women and children were in,” she said. “It was just awful. In Uganda, if a man dies and is married and has children, the law is such that his relatives can come and take everything. They can take the home, the pots and the pans and the bag of rice and the bag of beans and everything. Some of the widows, they weren’t old widows, they had little kids, they were sleeping on the street.”

She got in touch with a friend living in northern Uganda and started a charity, Children of Hope. Based in Gulu, it offers support programmes for women.

Ms Atcheson moved back to Bermuda in 2017 to be closer to her grandsons Judah, 6, and Micah, 4.

Bored with “sitting around doing nothing” she found a job teaching at Impact Mentoring Academy in Smith’s.

At home in Manchester she was also considered adventurous.

“I grew up in a poor family,” she said. “My father worked in a factory and my mother supervised a group of cleaners. Back then the people we knew really did not go anywhere or travel. They just stayed in Manchester. I was an anomaly.”

Still curious, Ms Atcheson is taking an online course in art therapy to help people with anger and anxiety.

“It should be finished in the summer,” she said. “I want to use it with the students at Impact and also help people who have anxiety and need a source of peace.”

In her spare time she gardens on a community plot in Warwick and, when gyms are open, works out several times a week.

“You can dig and grow your own vegetables,” she said. “I am not a vegan or vegetarian, but I am big on having a healthy diet. I like to know where my food comes from and what is in it.

“Just recently, I have been feeling like life is good. When I was young I thought when I am in my eighties and I am sat out on a porch somewhere, I want to have no regrets, and so far, I haven’t had any. I have lived my best life.”

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published May 05, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated May 06, 2021 at 8:15 am)

Christine’s helping heart

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