From funding life-changing research to giving young people a voice and protecting and creating places for nature to thrive. Helen Leadbitter, Angela Dickson and Deborah Tann are leading the way in their fields and inspiring others. Now their achievements have now been recognised in this year’s New Years Honours

Deborah Tann, Chief Executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust MBE for services to wildlife and the natural environment

‘I have always had a love of wildlife,’ says Debbie Tann, ‘It started, like with many people, in my own back garden.’

Debbie began working for the Wildlife Trust in 1998, after studying ecology and environmental science. Her love of wildlife turned into frustration when growing up in Surrey, she saw more and more of the countryside destroyed. ‘I saw the M25 being built and I remember very clearly, favourite walks being ripped up. Rather than just being a poetic naturalist, I became more of an environmentalist. I wanted to do something to try and stop some of the environmental destruction.’

She became chief executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust in 2008 and says that as well as growing it she has grown with it.

‘When we started we were quite small with only 20 staff, now we have 150. The trust is now one of the largest wildlife trusts in the UK with a turnover of £10million and more than 28,000 members.

The 56-year-old oversees some of Hampshire’s most beautiful areas, looking after nature reserves spanning 5,000 hectares and including St. Catherine's Hill in Winchester, Pamber Forest near Tadley and Roydon Woods in the New Forest.

‘It’s all about safeguarding the best places for nature through education and campaigning. What we now have to do is make sure governments and businesses do the right thing and start to put in place policies that restore some of the damage we have done. Education is absolutely key; we need to teach children to love and appreciate nature.

‘Lockdown reconnected people with nature. People actually stopped and listened and appreciated what they had on their doorstep. Suddenly they noticed the incredible, beautiful song of the blackbird. He lifted our spirits and made us feel better. If nothing else, nature is really good for our wellbeing.’

What does she love about her job? ‘Knowing that we are making a difference locally. I love taking a piece land that is not particularly good for nature, restoring it and seeing the wildlife come back. We are working on some amazing projects where we are rewilding land. Within a matter of months you suddenly have huge flocks of birds, insects and flowering plants. It's so rewarding to see a plant pop up that hasn't been seen for 100 years. It gives me lots of hope that we can heal the planet. Only about six or seven percent of our county is good for wildlife, we need more.

Fishlake Meadows Nature Reserve is an example – what was land growing potatoes, is now an incredible wetland with otters, bittern and ospreys. The starling murmurations there are amazing.’

Favourite places include the River Itchen, near her home in Eastleigh, walking through the water meadows of St. Catherine’s Hill and Farlington Marshes. ‘Farlington Marshes is an amazing site for birds; it’s a real spectacle in the winter. It is protected by a sea wall which is failing – we are really trying to push to protect it until suitable compensatory habitat can be found. It highlights the stark reality and modern challenges faced and questions what value do we put on nature?’

Debbie says she was thrilled to receive an MBE. ‘For people like me, ordinary people working hard, trying to make a difference in the world. It's really lovely to get that recognition.’

Great British Life: Helen Leadbitter has given young carers a voice. Helen Leadbitter has given young carers a voice. (Image: Sam Lowe)

Helen Leadbitter, Founder of Young Carers Initiative MBE for services to young carers

Some years ago a young carer said to Helen Leadbitter, ‘I’m not hiding, you just don’t see me.’ It resonated with the 45-year-old from Winchester. ‘I had been gathering their views on what society could do to make them less hidden and more recognised and was challenged – is it that they are hidden or is it that we aren’t looking properly?’

Since then, Helen has spent the past 20 years trying to change this and ensure that the one million plus young people have support, time out, opportunities and most importantly a childhood.

It is estimated that in England and Wales alone, unpaid carers save the NHS £162 billion per year.

‘These incredible young people care for their families, but so often you see the impact on their wellbeing and education. We need to recognise what they do but also recognise that they are children first and should be supported so they can think about life opportunities for the future.’

Great British Life: Helen Leadbitter with her mentor Jenny Frank. Helen Leadbitter with her mentor Jenny Frank. (Image: Sam Lowe)

Through her company Young Carers Initiative, Helen has become a spokesperson, advocating within government departments on strategy and working across the other charities helping to link services. ’It’s looking at how they can get their voices heard,’ she says.

Her MBE came as a surprise: ‘I am proud that they have trusted me to tell their stories and that I have been able to champion them on their behalf.

‘I didn’t set out over two decades ago as a newly qualified social worker knowing that I was beginning a journey that would be a life's work and commitment. However, reflecting back, I think at every stage I have remembered that the young carers themselves need to be the ones guiding and influencing change and that they are the experts. I had an incredible manager and friend, Jenny Frank, who recognised the importance of creativity and development. Jenny passed away last year but one piece of advice that I will always remember from her came when I was struggling to start a project; she simply said "just start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start."'


Great British Life: Angela Dickson founded a brain tumour charity after losing her daughter. Angela Dickson founded a brain tumour charity after losing her daughter. (Image: The Brain Tumour Charity)

Angela Dickson, Co-founder of The Brain Tumour Charity

OBE for services to people with brain tumours

When Angela Dickson from Dogmersfield lost her 16-year-old ‘bright, lively daughter’ Samantha to a brain tumour in 1996, the stay-at-home mum turned her devastation into determination to fund research, working tirelessly to prevent the same tragedy affecting others.

‘We never expected to create a charity, but at Samantha’s funeral we had £20,000 given to us in donations. There weren’t any dedicated brain tumour charities at the time so we funded research at Kings College and Queens Medical Centre in London. They asked if we could do anything more as they were desperate to keep their research going.’ Along with her husband Neil, the 72-year-old established The Samantha Dickson Research Trust which later became The Brain Tumour Charity.

Over Samantha’s two-year illness the couple gained valuable insight, however, running a charity was a steep learning curve. ‘I was always the one to be in the background but suddenly I was pushed forward. I was obviously nervous but I had no qualms in getting up and talking in front of an audience. I have met such lovely people along the way, helping others who were as desperate as me at the time.

Great British Life: Angela with her late daughter Samantha.Angela with her late daughter Samantha. (Image: Angela Dickson)

‘My mother always used to say, it’s Samantha who is the wind beneath your wings and she is. It gave us something to focus on, we funded four research projects in our first year.’

The couple have become experts in patient support, research, fundraising and collaboration across the sector to transform The Brain Tumour Charity into the largest dedicated charity funding research globally. Angela estimates that they have raised over £100 million since the original charity inception, they now have 300 supporter groups across the UK and breakthroughs include improving treatment for Medulloblastoma.

‘When you bring such a powerful community together, incredible things can happen,’ smiles Angela.

‘We were awarded an MBE by the Queen a few years ago, we couldn’t believe it, so it’s even more amazing to have been promoted!

‘Our hope is that with research, people can have not only a better quality of life but also a longer life. And hopefully one day a cure. Samantha would have been so proud that her legacy has benefited others.’