Singing the praises of Unsung Hero publican

Award-winning Ayrshire licensee tells all about journey

By Jack Walsh

IN November last year, the SLTN Awards once again championed the very best of the Scottish licensed trade.
Amongst the winners welcomed on stage to the cheers and applause of some 700 people was Kilmarnock publican, Helen Kallstrom.

And while each category win was a victory in its own right, Helen, who was crowned Unsung Hero in association with Hugh Stirling, reckons her award win was a particularly personal triumph.
“I think it was different for me because it was a personal thing,” she told SLTN.
“The other awards are for like your best bar, best whisky [bar], but for that award, that was for something I’d done in my life.”

• Helen Kallstrom accepting her award from Angus Alston of Hugh Stirling and comedian Paddy McGuinness.

Four years ago Helen, manager of the Braehead Bar in Kilmarnock, received the devastating news that she had breast cancer.

In the years that followed, she battled the cancer, undergoing a mastectomy, as well as receiving both chemotherapy and radiotherapy and dealing with the, at times, debilitating side-effects that came with those treatments.
And while it’s not always been easy to stay positive, Helen reckons that her ability to continue laughing has been key to getting through the struggles she’s had to face.

A pub like this is like a family; this is like my second family in here.

“A lot of people say ‘what do you think got you through it?’ and honestly – [it’s] laughing,” she said.
“If I didn’t laugh, I think I’d have cried.”

While positivity certainly had its part to play, Helen’s desire to help others, and raise awareness of breast cancer, were also driving forces.

Having taken the helm of the Braehead Bar three years ago – whilst still undergoing treatment, Helen has gone on to raise money for the pub’s local charity – Ayrshire Cancer Support – as well as supporting regulars who have since had to cope with their own diagnoses.

“Even in here, we’ve had two or three people diagnosed with cancer and they come up to me and they say ‘right Helen, what do I do now?’” she said.
“It’s the financial [side] as well.
“A lot of people don’t know where to go financially. I didn’t, until somebody told me.
“It’s just simple things like that.”

As well as helping others, Helen has relied upon the help of her staff, who she said have been “phenomenal” in terms of support. And she has a great relationship with her boss, John Cairns; he manages the Braehead Bar and Lithgows in Greenock, which are both owned by Hawthorn Leisure – and he nominated Helen for the Unsung Hero award.

“They encourage me to do things and they’re sort of there as well when you are at your lowest ebb,” she said.
“So it’s a positive thing as well, a small pub like this, it is like a family; this is like my second family in here.”

It’s this support that allowed Helen to continue working throughout her treatment. Outside of the pub, Helen’s also been kept busy in her bid to further raise awareness of breast cancer.

Chief amongst these efforts was the decision to feature in a documentary on STV (My New Hair, which aired in February 2015) and followed her journey as she underwent chemotherapy.

Helen admitted that she found the programme, which was nominated for a Bafta Scotland award, emotional to watch, adding that it “let Scotland see me at my worst”.

But she put her personal feelings aside, instead focusing on the awareness it could raise.
She also shared her story on social media, hoping to encourage more people to properly examine themselves.

“I did go public and I said to these girls that asked me [why], I said ‘when you read my status that I had breast cancer, what was the first thing you did?’ [They] said ‘I went and checked myself.’ I said ‘that’s why I did it’.”

Helen also set up the Facebook support page Cancer: The Biggest Tour of Your Life.

The aim of the page was to give fellow sufferers a safe space where they were able to talk to people in a similar situation and undergoing similar treatments.

We’ve had two or three people in here diagnosed with cancer.

There are other projects in the pipeline, too.

She is currently seeking sponsors to fund a project she hopes to launch called ‘Care for a Fight’ – providing care packages which would go some way to help support those undergoing chemotherapy.
“They’d contain silly things like, believe it or not, Bonjela, because you get really bad mouth sores with chemotherapy,” said Helen.
“And hand cream, because your hands get dry.
“Body lotions, baby soap, and then I want to make up these wee booklets and it’s just on your really down days you can have a look at these books and it’s something to keep you going.”

Helen reckons the scheme could become a registered charity and, as well as funding the care packages, money could be raised for Ayrshire Cancer Support – without which, Helen said, “I wouldn’t be here”.

Despite her selflessness, Helen remains humble, saying she  believes “there are more inspirational people out there”, and she is simply doing what she hopes others would do.
“See if I could just help everybody, it would be absolutely fantastic,” she said.
“But sadly, it’s not going to happen.

I always say it costs nothing to be nice to somebody or pay it forward.

“I always say it costs nothing to be nice to somebody or pay it forward, buy someone a cup of tea or if somebody is sitting there and they look kind of down just say to them ‘how are you today?’ – it takes nothing because that ‘how are you’ could be the highlight of that person’s day. It takes nothing.”

Winning the SLTN Unsung Hero Award was, she said, a high point which she reckons helped to validate her efforts.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” she said.
“I know this sounds stupid but it was as if I was getting rewarded for the hardship that I went through; that’s what it felt like, that I was finally recognised for something that I’d done.”