A West Cumbria NHS peer supporter has been shortlisted for Keyworker of the Year in the upcoming Newsquest Pride of Cumbria Awards 2024.

Kristina Whitworth, whose own son has additional needs, has used her personal experiences in new ways to assist other families.

Her initiatives include a support group for her team's clients' families, ensuring they can find both practical help and a safe place to discuss their concerns.

Perhaps most inspiringly, she has also trained her dog, Honey, a five-year-old Cockapoo, to be a therapeutic support aid.

Ms Whitworth's peer support facilitator, Laura Wilson, said: "Kristina’s efforts have helped parents get practical and emotional support.

"And her blue-sky thinking, getting Honey trained and certified as a therapy dog, has been inspiring.

"We’re all thrilled that she has been shortlisted and recognised for what she does."

Honey's journey into therapy work began in 2021 when Ms Whitworth noticed how valuable the dog's interaction with her children could be to other families.

After securing half of the £2000 certification cost from National Lottery funding and the rest from colleagues and friends' assistance, Ms Whitworth got Honey officially certified as a therapy dog with People and Animal Wellbeing Services (PAWS).

Ms Whitworth said: "There’s been times I’ve gone, this is so much harder than I anticipated - it’s hours of extra work - but I didn’t want to let people down, and I’m so glad we’ve done it now."

She also revealed how Honey had shown significant improvement in the anxiety levels of patients during appointments.

Ms Whitworth said: “At the moment we are supporting a young girl who has a lot of trauma around medical appointments, but is in desperate need of some tests.

“So, we are going to bring Honey in to do some ‘gradedexposure therapy’ where this young girl can use a toy stethoscope on Honey, bandage her paw, and so on.

"I’ve been practicing at home to make sure Honey will tolerate it calmly.

"The idea is that this young girl can get used to seeing and being around these medical-looking instruments and gain some confidence.”

She would do this by letting the girl use medical-looking toys on her, helping the girl gain confidence with medical instruments.

Besides her therapy work, Kristina runs a supportive group for parents of children with additional needs.

Ms Whitworth said: "Parental wellbeing can be the elephant in the room, Sometimes as a parent, you don’t feel listened to. So, I’ve just tried to be the voice for other parents who are going through similar things.

"Sometimes, that’s all you need, a place to have a cuppa and offload about what you’re really finding tough today." 

The Pride of Cumbria awards are scheduled for June 13, in Wigton, where the winners will be announced.

Besides her NHS work, Ms Whitworth is actively involved in fundraising efforts for local charities.

Her next challenge is a 20-mile walk in July to gather funds for Team Evie, a charity supporting families with a hospitalised or lost child.