Friday 26th January 2024
How the RAF Benevolent Fund provided financial support to an RAF family for home adaptions, to meet the complex needs of their eldest daughter.
After many years of moving from one RAF base to another, Flight Lieutenant Graeme Ritchie and wife Bianca relocated to Grantham to build their forever home, to meet the complex needs of their 10-year-old daughter. When the extravagant cost of the works looked like an impossibility for the family of five, they turned to the Fund for financial assistance to enable a comfortable future together.
Graeme and Bianca married in 2012 when Graeme was stationed at RAF Honington. Since then, Bianca has followed Graeme throughout his RAF career, working his way up from Senior Aircraftsman to Flight Lieutenant. The family have lived on numerous RAF bases in St Athan, Honington and Halton.
The couple have three children, Lucia, 10, Jenson, eight, and Pippa, five. Bianca is a full-time carer for their eldest child Lucia, who was diagnosed with a complex health condition as a baby.
Graeme was deployed on tour just 14 days after Lucia was born. Five months later Lucia started having seizures. Bianca said:
“I had mother’s intuition – I knew it was something quite serious. Luckily, I trusted my instincts, did my research, and suggested to the doctor that she could be having infantile spasms. The doctor took me seriously and assessed her and that’s what it was.
“From that diagnosis, the hospital tested to see why she was having spasms and found out that she had Chromosome 1p36 deletion.”
According to Unique charity, people with 1p36 deletion syndrome have lost a small but variable amount of genetic material from one of their 46 chromosomes. This can often cause developmental delay, feeding difficulties and seizures in children.
After learning Lucia’s diagnosis, Bianca was desperate to get Graeme home. She said:
“I spoke to SSAFA to get him home from tour early; he only had a couple of weeks left so he returned home and from then on it was constant hospital appointments. None of the doctors knew anything about Lucia’s condition – it was all a learning curve.”
Lucia’s congenital disorder means that she is non-verbal, has mobility issues, epilepsy, and heart defects.
After spending eight years at RAF Halton, which Bianca says is the longest she’s lived anywhere in her life, the family decided it was best to move to a permanent home in Grantham to be closer to family and adapt their house to meet Lucia’s needs.
When Lucia was almost nine, it was agreed by an occupational therapist that it was too dangerous for Lucia to be upstairs anymore, and she needed special bathing facilities.
“I’d put my back out a few times which completely stops me from doing anything and affects Graeme’s work. Having a wash facility where we didn’t have to lift Lucia so much or get her up and down the stairs is what we really needed, but we knew it would cost a lot of money to get this done.”
Bianca said they sought help from the local authority to begin with:
“We got some plans drawn and went to the local authority to see what they could do to help. What they could offer wouldn’t even cover the cost of the brickwork and the foundations. They basically said you need to find the rest elsewhere.”
Having previously supported the family with a stairlift, ramp and physiotherapy for Lucia in their new home, SSAFA made Bianca and Graeme aware of the Fund and the financial assistance available to serving personnel and their families.
The Fund provided the Ritchie family with a grant and a loan to make the adaptations.
“We’d heard about the Fund before from community centres on base but after speaking to SSAFA we approached the Fund and we honestly can’t believe how much financial support we’ve been given – it’s life-changing, it really is.”
The work on the house has taken six months to complete. Bianca said: “It’s taken a while because we have been living in the house as the works have been underway. The builders have been really helpful trying to make it as accommodating for us as possible, making sure we can still get a wheelchair through while they’re trying to dig up the floor!”
Speaking on the scale of the construction, Bianca said:
“Our kitchen was so small before – I couldn’t leave Lucia in the dining room whilst I was in the kitchen and if she was in the kitchen in her chair, she was good at pushing herself around and climbing onto the work surfaces. She grabs anything and puts it into her mouth.
“So having the kitchen and dining room knocked through into an open plan kitchen dining area is absolutely life-changing for us; she can sit with me in the kitchen diner, and I can cook and watch her and she’s not in any danger. Also, she gets really frustrated when she’s hungry so now she can see that I’m making her food whilst she’s sitting there, which is so much safer.
“We had the patio done so Lucia can go outside in her chair without there being any steps in the way. She was always stuck in the living room before, but now the whole of the downstairs is completely Lucia-friendly. She’s involved in the social side of family life now.”
Speaking on the relief this has brought to the family, Bianca said:
“The best part for us is that she is in a safe bedroom that’s her own downstairs with an accessible bathroom. It’s perfect, I don’t have to lift her in and out of the bath anymore. It’s life-changing for all of us.”
Graeme now commutes to High Wycombe working on capability development for UK Space Command. Bianca no longer finds the two-and-a-half-hour drive away from home an issue, saying:
“I’ve got my mum and dad in Grantham and Graeme’s parents have moved here to be close to us too. Having that support around us has meant we can go out in the evenings – we would never have been able to before, we were completely restricted. We were able to take the other two children to watch the fireworks recently which was lovely and a much-needed experience for them.
“Our adapted home is life-changing for our other children as well because it takes the stress off us and makes the simplest things so much easier. It gives them the space they need to themselves too.
“We’re truly so grateful for the support from the Fund. It has been so exciting to see the process of the build. I’m just amazed that the help was there for us, and the extent of the support has been incredible.”
You can find out more about the support available from the Fund on the website here.