Octogenarian Rita Upchurch is a Croydon heroine in the eyes of people who have suffered facial burns and other disfigurements.
Now her extraordinary work in the field of cosmetic camouflage has earned her an MBE.
Rita, who is 84, has devoted her life to charity, as she explained to Eastlondonlines: “I was a young teacher and a volunteer at the Red Cross. Then, back in 1958/9, the Red Cross started a new service of therapeutic beauty care within hospitals. Later, in 1962, the Ministry of Health approached the Red Cross and myself to start a cosmetic camouflage service.”
Rita was able to assist in this project due to her own experience practicing camouflage techniques on herself following an accident she had in 1954 which left her with multiple injuries.
Cosmetic camouflage is now a recognised Level Three qualification available for students in beauty and nursing colleges to take. Rita takes pride in this fact as it was once not recognised as a skill.
She said: “Really, I share this award with all of the people who are still carrying out these skills in hospitals and all of the teachers in colleges who are still teaching the skill. It’s very nice to know that it’s still going on.”
Rita’s charity work does not stop there. She founded a charity called the AZOOR Society in 2002 to aid in funding research for the disease which is very close to her heart. She said: “My daughter developed a very, very rare eye disease called Azoor and there’s no research or anything going on because it’s so rare. Now, there is a chance that, through Fight for Sight and through fundraising that we’re attempting to do, some research will be going on.”
Azoor, which stands for Acute Zonal Occult Outer Retinopathy, is a condition targeted in the retina which becomes dysfunctional due to multifocal inflammation at the back of the eye. It is a progressive condition which ultimately leads to total blindness.
Rita does not just take the back seat when running the organisation, she isn’t afraid to get stuck in with the fundraising either. “In fact, two years ago, I did the seven-and-a-half-mile charity walk.”
Despite all of the charity work she has done throughout her life, her experience being honoured at Buckingham Palace by Prince Charles last month is something she will never forget.
“I think I was the oldest person at the palace. There were swimmers and paraplegics and they were incredibly nervous. Because I am a teacher, I had to try and sort of get their nerves down and make them laugh. There were no seats and every time I leaned against the wall my hat went sideways!”
Rita’s hat was an ongoing concern for her throughout the ceremony: “I went up and I curtsied and I did my two steps and then there is the Prince and he was absolutely amazing. He’s quite tall already but he was standing on a platform and I think I must have shrunk in the years. I did seem to be short and moving my head up, I kept thinking ‘my hat’s going to fall off’.”
Meeting royalty comes with many different etiquette rules, most of which Rita was prepared for; apart from one. “One thing that I didn’t know but a friend who’d been at the Palace some years ago, told me ‘Rita, have you practised walking backwards?’ I replied that I hadn’t seen any information about walking backwards! Of course, you’re not allowed to turn your back on royalty so that rather threw me…I definitely wobbled.”
Despite this once-in-a-lifetime experience, Rita Yvonne Roberts Upchurch MBE, remains modest about her charitable achievements. “I felt very humble really,” she said. “I’ve always thought of the honour as going to heroes and I’ve never thought of myself as a hero, I always thought that it was really far above me.”
She said: “I think really, the most important thing about doing anything, whether it’s for charity or volunteering or anything at all, is that you have fun doing it. I think that I have been very, very lucky. I’ve enjoyed all the work that I’ve done and all the people that I’ve worked with.”
Rita wants to encourage everyone to get involved in fundraising for Fight for Sight. You can find a wide range of fund-raising events here.