“I’ve been brought in right now to make a difference, and I love that. I really want to make a difference; to value what’s here and make it even better. But I know I can’t do that alone.”
Meet Michelle Kabia, ellenor’s new CEO.
An energetic, impassioned healthcare professional, Michelle has spent more than four decades meeting the needs of the UK’s most marginalised, stigmatised communities. Having joined ellenor in July 2023, Michelle is now committed to building upon the remarkable work the charity is already doing – and continuing to drive positive change.
Throughout her illustrious career, Michelle has constantly questioned the status quo, raised collective standards, and relished the challenge of tackling taboo topics head on. All while being driven by a genuine desire to improve people’s lives; and create more collaborative, innovative environments within organisations.
Michelle’s career in healthcare began in the 1980s as a cancer nurse, where she tackled issues of stigma and shame head on, every day.
“Cancer wasn’t something people talked about back then,” she explains. “There was a big shame in having caught something that people thought could be contagious.”
Soon, Michelle’s path would lead her to working with two of the most stigmatised communities in the late 20th century – HIV patients and injecting drug users. For five years, Michelle was a Specialist HIV Ward Manager with the NHS during a time when little was understood about HIV. Where some nurses, fearful of catching it through casual contact, were blocking hospital doors to HIV patients, and where the prevailing climate was fear.
“I’ve always been hugely passionate about working with the people who other people couldn’t see themselves working with,” says Michelle. “As my mum would say, I have a ‘social heart’. I specialised in areas where there were unpopular communities, and what I learnt, above all, was that everybody’s human; everyone has needs. And that we’re defined more by our similarities than our differences.”
Michelle’s next role was at Turning Point, where she pioneered a groundbreaking hospice for drug users with HIV – the first of its kind not only in the UK, but in the world. Later, she managed Turning Point’s mental health and learning disability services. In that role, Michelle challenged the sector’s reliance on placing individuals with long-term institutional care. Instead, she focused on
building independent living services in the community, supporting people to thrive and regain control over their own lives.
Following almost 11 years at Turning Point, Michelle spent three years at Strutton – a housing association that provides housing support for people with HIV. In 2005, Michelle moved to Mind, where she worked in East London supporting diverse communities across Tower Hamlets, Newham, and Redbridge.
When she arrived, the service was underfunded and under threat. When she left – a whole 18 years later – it was thriving and supporting people in seven boroughs within the North East London ICB.
“I’m very passionate about meeting the needs of local communities as they change and evolve,” Michelle says. Michelle’s CV is a testament to her work breaking down barriers and challenging unhealthy or uncomfortable perceptions of communities and topics.
“I am passionate about challenging stigma, discrimination, and inequity, and promoting awareness, kindness and understanding. Whether this relates to HIV, Mental Health or Death and Dying. Being able to reassure people that it’s okay to talk about death and dying, grief and loss – that it’s actually going to happen to all of us – helps normalise these conversations and is a healthy step forward.”
One way to overcome this stigma, Michelle believes is working with people as early in their journey as possible.
“There is a growing demand for hospice services, and we want to work with people early in their journey – so when they do need end of life support, they already know us. They know there’s not going to be any stigma coming here for end-of-life care because people have already been with us on their path as a patient.
“The earlier we work with people – whether that’s step down, wellbeing, working with people with other long-term conditions – the better.
“The wellbeing service, for example, is available for people with long-term conditions; for people with palliative care needs; for people who’ve been bereaved. Throughout their journey, we can support people – hospices aren’t just for those final few weeks of life.”
It’s something Michelle believes ellenor’s new Wellbeing Centre – an in-construction extension of ellenor’s existing hospice building in Northfleet – will help with.
“It’s exciting to see that the hospice is thinking ahead about future needs,” says Michelle. “And that, through it, we’ll have capacity for more community members to access ellenor’s spaces. Compassionate care is a profound human need, and it’s our duty to provide comfort, dignity, and support to those during their journey. The Wellbeing Centre will help us continue doing this.”
That said, Michelle is mindful of not highlighting the Wellbeing Centre as a place that patients and families must physically visit to receive support. ellenor’s services are available throughout the local communities, and are not fixed, stationary places that patients must travel to – instead, they
are designed to be flexible and adaptable, reaching patients and their loved ones wherever they feel most comfortable.
This ethos – proactivity, rather than reactivity – is also reflected in Michelle’s beliefs around the diverse, marginalised communities ellenor serves. It’s not enough, she claims, for ellenor simply to exist for these cultural and socio-economic groups. But rather to reach out to them, to engage with them; to understand their specific needs and for ellenor to develop bespoke services that meet local peoples needs.
“Organisations often talk about having an ‘open-door policy’ and that everyone is welcome. However, if there are communities who are underrepresented in our service then we have to reach out to them, visit their safe spaces and find out more about how we can support them better. It’s not enough to simply say we’re an inclusive service that accepts everyone, and that doesn’t discriminate. Because if a certain community isn’t getting the service they need from us, we are discriminating against them.
“We must consider those who cannot access our services – whether that’s due to a cultural difference, a language barrier, an issue accessing transport, or because they’re isolated and lonely and don’t know what’s out there. It’s our responsibility to find solutions.”
Throughout her entire career, Michelle has challenged the existing order – questioning established practices in a constant pursuit of better serving people’s needs. In essence, she has a mentality of change: and not just for change’s sake, but for good. And it’s one, as Michelle’s already finding out, that is shared by the team members at ellenor.
“When I first entered ellenor, it felt like walking through the doors of my home; a place where I could truly make an impact, be myself. I’ve been warmly welcomed; sensed the dedication of our team to our patients and their families and witnessed a genuine desire for continuous improvement.
“Nobody is sitting back and saying we don’t need anything new. Everyone’s really engaged in exploring different approaches, and ensuring we showcase our work effectively. That’s impressed me.”
Looking ahead, Michelle is determined to nurture and strengthen ellenor’s already strong relationships with local partners such as Mind, Alzheimer’s Association, Age UK, and Stonewall – while also expanding the organisation’s engagement with underrepresented communities. Furthermore, she aims to build on the work being carried out by ellenor’s Children’s Services in supporting young people and their families – work she finds “extremely impressive.”
She is also dedicated to shaping a forward-thinking, proactive, and innovative organisation that is fit for current and future demands and building upon the remarkable work of its staff, volunteers, and donors within the North Kent and Bexley communities, creating a more open, inclusive, and accessible care for everyone.
“We’re a strong team, and we’re much stronger together. There are some key areas where we need the talent of the team to drive things. I really want people to see that I can’t change this organisation on my own; neither would I want to lead the organisation to a change that I’d just
decided on. It needs to be a collaborative way of working, and if I can get anybody energised into saying ‘oh, I wish we’d thought about that – let’s try it!’ then I love that.
“We can do a lot of new things now – we don’t have to wait. Why wait?”