The princess was handed tissues after a mom saw her tearing up

By Simon Perry
Updated February 18, 2015 05:45 PM
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Credit: James Whatling/Splash News Online

Princess Kate was “choked up” after hearing stories of young moms battling challenges ranging from severe illness to depression.

Kate, 33, was handed a tissue by one mother, who says her 13-year-old daughter is her main caretaker during bouts of severe illness.

The royal heard the story during a private meeting while visiting the Cape Hill Children’s Center in Smethwick, Birmingham, Wednesday. The center is run by Action for Children, a U.K. charity that supports vulnerable and neglected children.

Kate went around the table, making “eye-contact with all of us,” said one mom, and listened intently to their “heart-wrenching stories.”

But at the end came the one that brought tears to her eyes. Michelle Griffiths told Kate how she feels her illness has “stolen” her 13-year-old daughter Chloe’s childhood.

Griffiths, 33, from Smethwick, has been diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome, a rare hereditary heart condition that means she could have a heart attack at any time. She has had open heart surgery to fit a defibrillator that shocks her back to life after she suffers an attack known as a fatal arrhythmia.

She says she has “died” several times and then been brought back after suffering heart attacks. Her daughter watches over her, while son Alfie, 4, has had to be taught to call 999 (the U.K. equivalent to 911) if she suffers a heart attack.

“I was telling her the things that my children have to do sometimes and that I feel like I have stolen my daughter’s childhood, but [my daughter] doesn’t see it like that,” Griffiths told PEOPLE after the meeting. (And Alfie proudly calls his mom a “Superhero” because she has a metal box in her chest.)

“She got choked up and I had to give her a tissue,” Griffiths also said.

The Princess’s Mission

Kate is making it a key theme of her public work to improve early intervention for children suffering with difficulties because of challenging family circumstances.

Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of the charity, talked to PEOPLE about the exchange with the struggling mom: “She certainly made reference to the fact that they’d moved her a great deal. She said, ‘You’ve brought a tear to my eye.’ ”

And he observed Kate’s affinity with the women and families in general. “She’s a young mum talking to other young mums and sharing that experience. There is a kind of bond of parenthood and, yes, on the face of it they have very different backgrounds, but she was talking to some mums we help a lot, facing challenges like bereavement, domestic violence, severe illness.”

“And yet hearing them talk to her and the way Her Royal Highness drew them out was really inspiring. It was lovely to see,” he also said.

The private session went over by 15 minutes as Kate patiently heard each person. “You could see how each story touched her in a different way,” Griffiths added. “Kate said, ‘I can’t imagine what you went through but I can see how happy you are now.’ ”

Prince George Chatter

After meeting families and taking part in arts and crafts, she also watched a play session for children between the ages of four months and nine years old – even joining in for a sing-along at the end.

“I should have brought George. He would have loved this,” Kate told parents after joining in for ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ ‘Row, Row Row Your Boat,’ and ‘Wind the Bobbin Up.’

Seven months pregnant Kate, who wore a blue floral dress by maternity designer Seraphine, also praised the children for their behavior.

“I can’t imagine George would have been so good,” she told parents.

Donna Ebanks said Kate wished her son Samuel ‘Happy Birthday’ as he celebrated Wednesday. “Samuel was playing with the little animals and she said that George loves then too. My daughter was at the painting table and she said that George likes getting his hands in paint.”

Esther Bulus, 35, who brought her 17-month- old daughter, Elizabeth, with her, added, “She saw my daughter painting and said ‘If George was here, that’s what he would be doing.’ ”

It is the second visit in two weeks to a center for vulnerable children. Last Tuesday, she spent three hours at a special school for mentally ill patients in southeast London.

Both she and husband Prince William believe early intervention is crucial in helping youngsters, and the visit highlighted some of the charity’s efforts to tackle that.

She recorded a video message (which has now been seen by nearly 300,000 people) to kick off the week that’s being led by one of her charities, Place2Be.