By Freya Gascoigne
At first glance, Karen Sugarman MBE exudes elegance and glamour. As soon as she’s asked about her work, her natural warmth and kindness rises to the surface.
After suffering personal loss, Karen has devoted the last 37 years of her life to helping others. She was awarded an MBE for her services to life-limited children and young people in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2020, and has spoken at Buckingham Palace and Number 10 Downing Street.
In 1986, Karen’s mother passed away in an adult hospice at the age of 49, and her father died a few years after. Understanding the impact palliative care can have on the experience of losing a loved one, she was inspired to make a difference.
When asked why she chose this path, Karen responded with absolute clarity: “The moment I walked into hospice, I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There would always be families in situations like ours, but there was no local children’s’ hospice at the time, and I just knew that was my calling.”
Karen first volunteered with Cancer Research, and then at Bart’s Hospital in London on the children’s oncology ward. In 2003, she joined Shooting Star Children’s Hospices, and is now Executive Vice-President: “Just over 20 years ago, there was talk of building a children’s hospice in West London. I phoned them up and said, ‘I think I can help make a difference’, and the rest is history.”
Shooting Star is a leading children’s charity with two hospices: Christopher’s in Guildford and Shooting Star House in Hampton. They provide care for children with life-limiting conditions across West London and Surrey. From diagnosis to end of life and throughout bereavement, they support the children and their families with a range of nursing, practical, emotional, and medical care.
Prior to moving into charity work, Karen worked in at the BBC and in Music. She met George Michael at Twickenham Film Studios, who helped Karen with her very first charity event. Her previous career proved useful in getting some great names on board to help with fundraising: “I was able to call on so many people I had worked with and knew as friends. And they all said yes, and they’re still saying that 20 years later, which is incredible.”
A glittering portfolio of stars and notable figures have stood behind Karen and her mission from the beginning. Simon Cowell, Dame Joan Collins, and Tony Hadley are Co Vice-Presidents of the charity and have been central to raising awareness and much needed money.
Tim Oliver, the Chair of Surrey County Council, has also been a longstanding support to the charity and mentor to Karen, as has Michael More-Molyneux – Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, who are also both Vice-Presidents of the charity.
Michael Ball, also a Patron, recently hosted a star-studded evening at The London Palladium to raise funds for the charity. Laurence and Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen are also Patrons and won £500,000 for Shooting Star on Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which stands as the record for the most amount of money ever won on the show for a charitable cause.
“The late Sir Bruce Forsyth was our very first host and auctioneer of a special event in 2003, and his family have continued his legacy insupporting us.”
“During Covid, Simon Cowell and his fiancée Lauren Silverman, who is also a Patron, my brother Adam and myself, did a sponsored walk, starting at the hospice and ending at Richmond Hill to mark, at the time, my 35 years in palliative care, and we raised £59,000.”
To ensure the charity remains a vital lifeline to children and their families, Karen along with her colleagues has a challenging fundraising target of £10million a year to meet. She confirmed that it is indeed a challenge: “Fundraising is hard and it’s relentless, but it remains such a privilege and honour to work at this incredible charity.”
“Successful fundraising is about the people around you, working with an amazing team and colleagues – and I can’t ask for better. I’m surrounded by the best people, and they work so hard. We’re stronger together.”
“The creative side of fundraising is also great, where everyone is throwing around ideas. We have our very special Sunrise Walk in Richmond, where our supporters and families we have cared for join us to raise funds and everyone who comes along and walks by our side, make a difference.”
It’s clear that what lies at the centre of this passion is the unimaginable reality for the families if the hospices didn’t exist, and if their services weren’t available at a time that is already unbearably difficult.
“When you see and hear what you do at the charity, you’re inspired all the time. Everybody is pushing and pulling in the right direction, and that’s what’s important. The thing we have in common is a shared passion for the charity and what we do.”
Over her 20 years working with Shooting Star, Karen is doubtless that her connection with the families has been the highlight: “It really has been the privilege and honour knowing and meeting so many incredible families. I have seen so many sad times, and so many sunny times. I have been so close to so many families and had their trust to tell their stories.”
Karen’s unwavering dedication to her work was recognised in November 2021, when she was presented with an MBE at Windsor Castle by Princess Anne: “I would have given anything to have my mum and dad there. It was their inspiration and legacy that continues to motivate me everyday.”
“My mum and dad also worked in charity as volunteers. For me, that medal is really dedicated to them and all the children and families I’ve worked with in my 37 years.”
Having achieved great success, Karen imparted some words of wisdom for anyone working in the charity sector and faced with the challenge of fundraising.
“I think you have to touch it and feel it to deliver it. With the children’s hospice, what you see is so tangible – supporters can come and see our work firsthand. You have to love the job with a passion, and you have to love the charity. If you love the charity, then everything else will fall into place.”