On Wednesday 5 September, the Northern Ireland Branch hosted a retirement dinner for Elsa Witherspoon. A National Trainee in the class of 1977, along with Mike Hall, former Vice President, Alan Boughtflower and Jeff Swallow, Elsa has worked in catering management posts in all five Trusts in Northern Ireland covering General Acute, Psychiatric Hospitals, Residential Homes, Children’s Homes, Day Centres and Resource Centres.
Her biggest challenge was the planning, commissioning and managing of the Catering Services in the new Causeway Hospital, which opened in 2001. Elsa was very enthusiastic in her drive and commitment to improve, develop and enhance the quality and professionalism of catering services within Causeway Trust. Not everyone in their working lifetime gets the opportunity to be part of a new-build project and Elsa was always grateful for the experience and personal development opportunity that Causeway Hospital gave her. To say a part of her was in the fabric of the ‘B-building’ would be an understatement.
In 2007, as part of the Review of Public Administration, Elsa moved out of the Acute Hospital Sector and took up the position of Community Catering Services Manager for the Northern Health and Social Care Trust. Her new challenge was the merging of all community-based catering services from three Legacy Trusts into one efficient and effective service overseeing the catering service of 51 facilities.
In 2013, an opportunity arose to apply for the new post of General Manager of Community Catering and Domestic Services within the Northern Health and Social Care Trust. Elsa was successful in the interview process and embraced this new challenge with great enthusiasm, applying herself to the new world of ‘Environmental Cleanliness’ and building a domestic services team in the delivery of a positive healthcare experience for patients, clients and staff.
Elsa’s achievements include HCA Caterer of the Year in 2004 and runner-up in the Institute of Hospitality Northern Ireland for Professionalism. She twice led her team to win the BICSC (British Institute of Cleaning Science) Cleaning Operative of the Year award and Cleaning Supervisor of the Year award, was part of the Review Guide Working Group (2013) for the HCA publication ‘A Good Practice Guide To Ward Level Services’, and was awarded The Wilma Wilkie HCA Outstanding Service Award in 2015.
Elsa always prided herself in her ability to build a team and empower staff to make decisions that were customer focused, delivering a quality catering/cleaning service to patients, clients and staff. Accountability has been high on her agenda. And like Elsa, her staff have enjoyed a high level of job satisfaction because she encouraged them to take ownership of their service as part of the professional team.
Early in her career, Elsa joined the Northern Ireland Branch of the HCA and in 1994 became Honorary Secretary when the late Margaret Bates retired. Margaret was a hard act to follow but Elsa worked tirelessly to promote the work of the Association, thoroughly enjoying the many networking opportunities with her colleagues in other parts of the UK and the Catering Management Association in the Republic of Ireland.
At the 2008 Northern Ireland Branch AGM, Elsa was elected to the role of Branch Chairman, taking over from Bernie Grimes, and still holds that position. She has also represented the Northern Ireland Branch on the HCA National Executive and Council and has been totally committed to the aims and objectives of the HCA. She was renowned for her ‘plain speaking’ and was instrumental in securing the support of the Health Minister in advocating membership of the HCA as mandatory for all catering managers in the Strategic Framework for the delivery of Health and Social Care Catering Services Northern Ireland.
Elsa also firmly established the Annual Northern Ireland Branch Seminar, with many high-profile experts presenting, for example Andy Jones, Mike Hall, Professor Hugh Pennington, Professor Simon Allison, Caroline Lecko, Neil Rush, Janice Gillan, Paul Cryer, Rick Wilson and Fionnuala Cook.
The late Margaret Bates first brought the HCA National Conference to Newcastle, County Down in 1987 and in 2017 Elsa led the Northern Ireland Branch in hosting a very successful Leadership & Development Forum in the Europa Hotel Belfast.
Elsa has been a true professional, an ambassador for health care catering, and has been well respected by her peers and Trust senior management team for her vision and work ethic over 42 years. The words ‘relentlessly positive’ would sum her up very well.
She is now very much looking forward to less stressful decision-making days, swapping them for special times with her 10-month-old granddaughter Katie.