Bringing out the bestleisure-tynedale
People with learning difficulties are immersing themselves in the rural communities of the Allen Valleys while being taught new skills – just one of the many benefits provided by charity Natural Ability
THE smile says it all when Annie Evans talks about the transformation of her son from a shy young man to one full of confidence and enthusiasm. “It’s is lovely seeing him living an ordinary life,” she says of 28-year-old Joe Sanders, who has Down’s Syndrome and whose life took a turn for the better through the activities of an organisation Annie helped set up.
Annie’s idea to set up services locally for Joe and other adults and children with learning difficulties stemmed from a chat she was having while horse riding with a friend. Joe was away at a residential centre at the time, but why, asked Annie, couldn’t resources be available in the Allen Valleys where he lived?
After delving deeper she found out that there were ways of making this happen and the idea grew into Natural Ability – a fully fledged charity which has spread its wings from its base in Allendale to make a positive difference to people’s lives throughout Northumberland.
The main focus is to get people to play their part in the rural community, giving them independence by working, for example, on farms which have signed up to the project.
“The original vision was to have a farm where people could live and work, but when the financial crisis started, we realised that was not a realistic option so we do ‘guerilla’ farming… we have regular places we go to,” explained Annie. Other activities include working on a community garden at the High Forest Community Centre in Sinderhope; animal care days and environmental conservation. And then there are the outreach care services, which provide extra activities on top of what is already available in a home or school environment.
Before she set up Natural Ability Annie was a veterinary surgeon and growing up around animals, Joe had always wanted to be a farmer. But with no opportunities locally, he moved away to a residential care centre in Yorkshire, because it had a smallholding.
“My friend Janice Walker and I were out riding six years ago and I was again worrying about Joe going back there and she said, why can’t he just live here in a house here? And that was how the idea for Natural Ability was born. Why couldn’t he live in a house here with the necessary support?”
Annie and Janice turned to Social Enterprise Northumberland for help. “Neither of us had set up anything up from scratch before,” she said. “We knew what we wanted; to create opportunities for people like Joe, ideally living in the countryside because a lot of the supported living is in towns.”
What was important from the start, said Annie, was that the service integrated people into the local community. “It was so people could see that people with disabilities were part of the community and were playing an active part in the community on an equal basis,” she said. “The idea is to build partnerships with people – developing a relationship with people who need some work doing. That is our core business.”
Working outdoors, and in particular with animals, has had quite an impact on those taking part and Annie speaks of one child whose visits to see a pony built up his confidence enough to eventually go for a ride. “That is a huge achievement,” said Annie. “It had got him out into the world and experienced things he never would have done – being outdoors in the fresh air.”
The boy in question is autistic three-year-old Andrew Hamilton whose mum Emma described the involvement with Natural Ability as life-changing.
“About a year ago we saw Natural Ability at Allendale Fair and they had a Shetland pony there and a stall,” she said. “My son at that time was not talking. He had just received a diagnosis of autism. He was fascinated by the pony and wanted to put his hand on him and we realised we were tapping into something there.”
A visit to Allenheads to see the pony called Fudge, which belongs to Janice, saw Andrew walk up and stroke her. “He head rubbed her as well which is what he does when he wants affection,” said Emma. “There were two other horses in the fields and they were huge and he was not fazed at all and went straight up to them. They were putting their heads down and he was stroking their heads.
“He was not scared so I said to Janice, how about we do this regularly? On the second or third visit Janice asked whether he would go on the horse and I said no way. But she put him on and led him two laps around the field. That was really amazing for us and really emotional because we had not had that type of response before.
“Today, we try and go once a week to Allenheads. It is really special and means we can go out as a family and do something he really loves.”
Emma was so impressed that she decided to get involved with the charity and is now a board member. She said autistic children struggled with noise and crowds and Natural Ability’s activities had helped Andrew and others to get outside and become more active.
“It is quite a special relationship that Andrew has built up,” she said. “When the horses see him coming they kind of know it is him – we always bring carrots and apples which is probably the reason why! There is this bond there that he does not have with other children. It is a bit of freedom for him. He can do what he wants and be himself. I can’t say how much it has affected us as a family. It is a bit of a lifeline.”
The benefits of the visits on Andrew have included better mobility and improved sleep patterns. “When he comes home he is very tired… there’s the physical act of grooming and being on the horse. It really calms him so when he comes home he has a nap. Andrew does not sleep very well – most autistic children don’t.
“And he has a physiotherapist and has showed signs of dyspraxia and she has seen a real change in him. That is not down to play equipment because he does not go on anything. He is not interested – particularly if there are crowds and because he falls over a lot and has no confidence.
“When I told the physiotherapist about the horse riding she said that would help his core mobility skills so we do not see her as often as we did because he is learning more about movement from sitting on the horse and from being outside and not having to face the crowds – the kids in the park. It has helped him physically and mentally.
“We had tried so many things that might help, but the one thing we stick to is going up to see Fudge, because we do believe that has made a real difference. It is amazing really and it is great showing the pictures to our family because they are so proud of him.”
Three years ago, the charity set up its first supported living service with 24-hour care and it also has funding available to help young adults with learning difficulties who have left school with the transition to adulthood.
“They will often have had a very good education, but when they move into the adult world they can lose their ambition and become diffident,” said Annie. “We wanted to provide things for young people to support them through this transition, so we have run a specialist programme for four to five years for people based in their own home.”
The charity’s outreach care services, working with schools and parents of anyone from the age of three to 19 are also encouraging young people to get out and about. “We are taking them out of their home or school and dropping them back again and contributing to their skills and personal development,” said Annie.
With a core team of four, Natural Ability is supported by activity supervisors who run the day farming, as well as a group of volunteers. And a total of 17 staff work on the outreach programme on a one-to one basis with young people, taking them out and about, for example, to develop their social skills.
“It could be something like going for a meal in a cafe, learning how to order food, how to sit down at the table and communicate with people, so they can do that with their families better as time goes on,” explained Annie.
Funding remains an issue and the charity is now in the fourth year of a five-year lottery grant which supports the day farming. Children’s services come through contracts with the local authority and fund-raising also plays its part. Earlier this year, the charity’s services manager, Chris Moore and a team including Joe walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall, raising £500 in the process. And a trail race in May, which started and finished at Allenheads attracted more than 100 entrants and raised £1,000.
“We are really grateful for the support we have had,” said Annie. “The parish council has given us grants. The local community – local churches – are supporting what we do. It makes a massive difference to know that people around us are supporting us.
“For Joe it’s transformed his life. When he first came to live here he was quite diffident and shy. Now he’s a lot more confident and independent. He can take the bus on his own from Allenheads to the end of the line which I never thought he was able to do. The staff support him at home with household chores.
“The day farming has been absolutely fantastic for him. He is much fitter than he was and much happier. He has just changed. He is himself again. He lost a lot of confidence when he was away and he’s got all that back and more. It is wonderful to see that ordinary life happening because he has been able to access school and the community and Hexham. It is just lovely to see him living an ordinary life.”
Emma’s views echo those of Annie: “We are really glad we went to that fair on that day. It has changed our lives. It has given us hope and I can tell you that this time last year it was not there.
“And it has given me something to do and also… I just love it. Seeing the transformation it is making to these children’s lives… it is so special.”