The County Durham Care Academy is providing vital support for those considering a career in health and social care. PETER BARRON talks to a mum who, with a helping hand from the academy, swapped a job in retail for the care sector…

WHEN Hazel Hill reflects on what inspired her to change tack and pursue a career in the care sector, a sad but treasured memory immediately springs to mind.

Hazel was working in retail at Barnard Castle at the time and, after work, she’d drive to Richmond to support her grandad who’d become ill with dementia.

“Caring for him was something that came really naturally to me,” recalls Hazel. “I found I had a way of calming him down and talking to him in a reassuring way.”

Hazel’s grandad passed away just before the pandemic struck. During the subsequent lock-down she started reflecting on a change of career.

“I’d fallen into retail, but it was never something I intended to do long-term, and I wanted to make a difference,” she says.

Growing up in Newton Aycliffe Hazel had childhood ambitions to be a nurse. Her caring nature meant she was always the one at school who was given the task of making new pupils feel welcome.

Despite having excelled academically, she dropped out of Sixth Form college after a few months and started working at McDonald’s, where she met her future husband, Anthony. By 18 she’d had the first of their three daughters, and, to support the family finances, she started building a career in retail, rising to become store manager of a fashion chain.

After having her second child, Hazel took a career break and started volunteering in local nurseries and schools. She embarked on a Level 3 apprenticeship in Children and Young Peo-ple’s Workforce (Social Care), got a job overseeing the after-school provision for a private nursery company, and ended up managing two sites.

She carried on in that role for five years until she had her third child, then decided to be a stay-at-home mum for a while before an opportunity came up to return to a management role back in retail.

It was during that time that her grandad became ill, and her thoughts turned increasingly towards the care sector.

Hazel’s research led her to County Durham Care Academy, a pivotal organisation set up by Durham County Council four years ago to help the county’s many independent adult social care providers develop a valued and skilled workforce.

Hazel took Level 2 qualifications in adult social care and dementia care, both of which were organised by the Care Academy and delivered by the council’s DurhamLearn service. Her interest in the sector continued to grow from there.

“Through that learning I could see myself stepping into the care industry – it just felt like me,” she says.

The ‘turning point’ came, says Hazel, when she met Russell Nichol, a highly experienced commissioner with the Care Academy team who talked to her about the transferable skills she’d developed during her years in retail and education.

Russell arranged an interview for Hazel at Redworth House care home, in Shildon, and she was offered the role of head of activities the same day. It was a job that fitted her like a glove – organising all kinds of activities and putting plans in place to cater for the individual needs of every resident.

“I loved it from the start,” she says. “I look back on that conversation with Russell, and the support of the Care Academy, as utterly life changing.”

As well as crafts, quizzes and  bingo, Hazel also aimed high. During a conversation with one resident he revealed it was his dream to fly in a helicopter – so Hazel made it happen.

Then there was the time she arranged for a petting zoo to be brought to the home, particularly for a retired farmer with dementia. On the day, the man didn’t want to come downstairs, so a sheep was taken up to his room in the lift!

“The gentleman took one look at the sheep and said: ‘What are you doing here?’ He instinctively knew what breed it was straight away,” recalls Hazel.

Another highlight came in July 2021 when Hazel arranged for Redworth House resident Allan Brown to make a poignant last visit to Crook Town Football Club’s ground during his palliative care. Allan had been a local legend with the club, scoring the winning goal at Wembley in the 1964 FA Amateur Cup Final.

“These things are so special to people, and it’s about stepping out from the norm. It’s not why we can’t do something – it’s how can we make it a reality,” says Hazel.

She transformed the activities department, introducing documentation, training packs and a staff induction programme. The changes made such a difference that Bondcare, the company Hazel works for, rolled out the model to other local care homes.

Today, Hazel is activities manager for three care homes: Redworth House in Shildon; Allan Court in Newcastle, and De Baliol in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, with recent achievements including fundraising to create a sensory room at Redworth House.

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Hazel’s determined to go on developing her career in care. As well as working full-time and being a mum to her three girls – Amie, 20, Charlie, 17, and seven- year-old Lily-Mai – she’s also embarked on a Business and Management degree at New College Durham.

Cllr Chris Hood, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for adult and health services, said: “It is amazing to hear Hazel speaking with such passion about her job in care and of the joy she clearly finds in making a difference to the lives of some of the county’s older residents.

“We’re delighted to have been able to help Hazel through the Care Academy’s free training and by Russell organising the interview that saw her land her perfect role.

“To anyone who fancies a career change and thinks a job in care might be for them, why not contact the Care Academy – it could be as life changing for you as it was for Hazel.”

Marie Clifford, regional manager for Bondcare, said: “The Care Academy played a vital role in recognising Hazel’s transferable skills and recommending her to us for a role in care. “The training and support Hazel received from the Care Academy gave her a great foundation of knowledge to build upon once in employment and prepared her to take that next step into a suitable role.”

“I’d recommend anyone to consider a career in the care sector because it needs people who want to make a difference. Old age doesn’t have to be the end – we can make it a fulfilling and exciting time,” Hazel insists.

“I’m so passionate about what I do these days but, without the Care Academy’s guidance, I might never have found the perfect job,” she ends.

Wouldn’t her grandad be proud?

Free training with County Durham Care Academy

DO YOU want a job that makes a real difference to people’s lives, where no two days are the same and with flexible hours to fit around your life?

If you’re looking for a fulfilling role with lots of opportunities to progress why not let the Care Academy help you to start your career in care?

The Care Academy provides free and flexible training to give you the skills you need to start a career in adult or children’s social care. It also pays for your DBS check and guarantees you an interview when you complete the course.

The next six-week course for careers in adult social care starts on January 26, 2024 in Newton Aycliffe. Find out more at

There’s also free training to help you start a career in children’s social care. The next course starts on January 30, 2024 in Spennymoor. Find out more at CSCTrainingFast-track Into Employment Scheme

Fast-track into Employment Scheme

THE Care Academy also offers a fast-track route for people aged 18 or over who already have the basic skills needed to start a career in social care.

All you need do is complete a short application to tell the team about your existing skills and experience and the type of role you’re looking for. The team will then get in touch to discuss the different options available and how it can help you to find your ideal job in social care.

Find out how the Care Academy can help you to start your amazing career in care by visiting

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