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Reach Learning Disability celebrates 25 years of supporting and empowering adults with learning disabilities in Newark, Southwell and Mansfield

A charity has marked 25 years of helping adults with learning disabilities to live happier, healthier and more independent lives.

Reach Learning Disability began as the Southwell Care Project in 1999, and has grown from just 20 clients to 250 in the last quarter of a decade.

From humble beginnings hosting one social event a month to now offering 60 courses a week on everything from dance, to cooking to history, having three day centres and two Flower Pods, assisted living accommodation, socials and holidays, it has been an incredible story of growth and development for the charity under Steve Shatwell, chief executive for the past 17 years.

Clients celebrating 25 years of Reach, after the service in Southwell Minster.
Clients celebrating 25 years of Reach, after the service in Southwell Minster.

The joyous 25 anniversary service, led by the Dean of Southwell, the Very Reverend Nicola Sullivan, and former trustee Michael Davidson, involved lots of laughter and audience participation — including a wonderful performance of Don’t Stop Me Now by the Reach Singers and Signers, which filled the packed cathedral with a disco-like atmosphere.

The Reach Dancers also performed a routine ‘Brave’, and the Voice and Participation Group’s work on improving healthcare accessibility was showcased, as well as speeches, poetry, hymns prayers and a bible reading.

Among the guests were the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, Veronica Pickering, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Nick Rubins, alongside Reach clients, their families, staff and volunteers.

Reach has day centre bases in Newark, Southwell and Mansfield, and has Flower Pods in Newark and Southwell.

Clients and staff at Reach Newark.
Clients and staff at Reach Newark.

Without the support and activities offered at these centres, many adults with learning disabilities face unfulfilling lives, could be stuck at home, and their parents and carers may have no respite.

Among those supported by Reach Newark — based at Hawtonville Community Centre — are siblings Sara and Charlie Long, and their grandmother Josie Wake.

The pair have been part of the Reach community for 14 years; Sara attends two days a week, and Charlie three.

Charlie said: “It gets me out the house. It’s a few hours of freedom.”

They explained that if they didn’t have Reach to come to, they might be “sleeping in bed all day” or watching TV.

Both are part of the history class held on Wednesdays, which recently took a trip to the Civil War Centre and is currently studying the Tudors.

Steve Shatwell, Charlie Long, Sara Long and Josie Wake.
Steve Shatwell, Charlie Long, Sara Long and Josie Wake.

Charlie also takes part in singing and music sessions, and the vast array of different activities and educational courses, Josie explained, mean he is able to switch when his interests change, having recently changed from taking part in IT sessions.

Sara is also part of the Voice and Participation Group, and said: “It looks at people with learning disabilities and autism, giving them a voice.”

Members of the group are advocates for people with learning disabilities, and have this year been focusing on improvements to healthcare, and also help deliver training to new staff and volunteers at Reach.

“Especially at Reach we need staff that like a different challenge,” Sara added.

“It puts us in a better place — we have someone we can talk to if we have a problem.”

Josie added: “It offers them a chance to actually come and be with people they relate to. It gives them activities, social lives, and a place to meet friends and make friends — which they then meet outside of Reach as well.

“They can’t work so what do they do with their time? Reach gives them interests, and they’re able to choose between classes. There’s such a variety there will be something for everyone.

“It relives some stress in some way — you know they’re here and they’re safe.”

After the death of their mum in 2022, Reach’s carers manager Catherine Shatwell — affectionately known as the “carer’s carer” — also helped Charlie and his dad secure a bungalow to live together in, while Sara lives with Josie.

Catherine also assists families in dealing with documentation for councils, the Department for Work and Pensions and the like, which can be stressful and confusing.

Josie added: “It takes a lot of stress off people like me. I can just email her, ring her — she will always make contact.”

Asked what they’d say to people considering supporting Reach, Charlie said: “Just keep it going”. Sara added: “It’s the best place in the world, according to me.”

Reach’s day centres and Flower Pods are just part of what the charity offers, Steve explained, as it is dovetailed by their domiciliary care agency Reach Care which provides CQC outstanding rated one-to-one support in clients’ homes.

Reach also runs socials, and take group holidays two or three times a year — something which clients massively look forward to.

Steve added: “It’s the only holiday many of them have. Some of them will be packed a week before they go, they’re so excited.

Staff, clients and volunteers at Newark Flower Pod.
Staff, clients and volunteers at Newark Flower Pod.

“The impact is all year round. It’s something we take for granted.

The holidays also provide overnight respite for parents and carers.

This summer also marks a year since the 12 residents moved into the charity’s purpose-built accommodation in Southwell — where they can live more independently but with the support of housemates and care staff.

The charity also has a bungalow in Newark which provides accommodation for three people.

Providing independent yet supported living spaces for adults with learning disabilities in Southwell was the charity’s main priority when it began and, while it has taken two decades to achieve that goal, it has gained much more in the meantime.

Steve added: “You can have the most beautiful house in the world, but if you don’t have good care it’s like a prison.

“Accommodation, care and day services. Those three things go together and the cream on the top is the added value we give that joins them all up. Parent-carer work, transition work, Voice and Participation and holidays.”

Julia Sandhu, fundraising director, explained that the range of support and activities help increase clients’ confidence, build skills to live more independently, gain community knowledge and form new friendships and social connections.

She added: “Lots of people say they felt lonely before coming here.”

Reach also focuses on each client’s individual goals and dreams — whether it be learning to cook or getting a part time job or volunteering role.

The impact of all Reach does was particularly felt when the covid-19 forced the closure of its centres — but not even a global pandemic could stop the charity from doing as much as it could to support its clients.

Steve said: “It makes an enormous difference, we know this simply because the pandemic totally deprived people of the day services.

“The consequences for some were quite devastating, many didn’t have the capacity to understand why they were being kept at home.

“We immediately swivelled to an alternative delivery plan. We got clients, as far as we could, onto zoom classes everyday. We delivered hundreds and hundreds of packages to people doorsteps — the newsletter, cooking ingredients for zoom cooking classes, trays of potato seeds and planting equipment for horticultural zoom classes.

“We did literally hundreds of wellbeing telephone calls. For many that was an absolute lifeline.”

The pandemic also sparked the prompt creation of Newark Flower Pod — to ensure clients had a safe outdoor space to visit, as many didn’t have gardens of their own and can’t simply go for a walk at a park.

Since then it has gone from strength to strength, with a wildflower meadow, ducks, woodworking, polytunnels, a sensory garden, and a lawn where summer socials can be held.

Samantha Dakin, Flower Pod Newark centre manager, explained the pod enabled clients to access a green space in the urban setting — and learn skills including sustainability and cooking what they grow, woodworking and photography.

She added: “It’s a really mindful place to be, everybody is happy and safe.”

Phil Cree has been attending Reach Newark, and subsequently both Flower Pods, since shortly after it first opened in 2009.

He said: “I enjoy doing the gardens, I mostly do the weeds and pulling out.

“[If I wasn’t at Reach] I’d be stuck at home.”

Phil’s favourite part of the pod is getting out in the fresh air, and he is also part of the Voice and Participation group.

He would also encourage people to continue supporting Reach’s work, and added: “If no one puts any more into it, it’ll end up shutting and then I’ll loose all my friends and that lot.”

The newest client to join the pod is James Morris, and both he and his mum Tina Patrick have felt the benefits of Reach’s services.

Tina explained that it had made a “huge difference” for James, who after leaving full time education two years ago found he had nothing to do.

After struggling to find support and having to leave her job as James was at home all the time, Tina came across Reach’s Newark Flower Pod.

James Morris and mum Tina Patrick at Flower Pod Newark.
James Morris and mum Tina Patrick at Flower Pod Newark.

James comes to the flower pod on the bus from Bingham three days a week and explained he has learnt about “pollination, weeding and planting” during his time there so far.

Tina added: “He loves being outdoors and doing active things, and he loves the bus journey.

“Before, when he had nothing to do, he was angry. It was difficult for me to see. Now he is relaxed and happier.

“He’s interacting with people here and talking about them when he comes home — which is the first time he’s done that. It’s touching for me to know that he is interacting with others.”

It is not only clients who benefit from the centre — but volunteers too. While they give their time to support clients’ activities, they also get a lot back.

Richard Cobb, who began volunteering at the pod after covid-19, when he decided he wanted to give back to the community, said: “It’s just phenomenal really, the feedback and the encouragement.

“I sort of came in a sense feeling it would be good for other people — but it’s been good to me.”

Richard has shared his woodworking skills to help build the bird watching hide and duck house at the site among other projects, and previously set up the birdwatching group at Southwell Flower Pod.

He encouraged anyone thinking about volunteering to “just come and give it a go”.

“There are such wonderful people here,” he added.

“When you see someone struggling in an area and then all of a sudden they do something they’ve never been able to do before. It gives you boost.

“Both the staff and volunteers, and obviously the clients, are just a wonderful family.”

He gave high praise to the warm welcome he’d received from one of the clients, James Hunsley, who had gone out of his way to make sure Richard was involved. Interacting with volunteers from all walks of life also help the clients develop more confidence and build more connections in the community.

James has been with Reach for seven years, his mum Claire Hunsley explained.

“The development in him has been significant,” she added.

“He just loves it.”

In particular Reach has helped him see the need for maths and English, and develop his skills.

To continue offering its current services — and also grow and develop over the coming years — Reach needs the support of fundraisers and donors.

It currently needs over half a million pounds each year — and the number of people in Nottinghamshire with learning disabilities is expected to rise.

Further support and accommodation will also be needed for people with learning disabilities who currently live with their parents, as they are only getting older.

You can support Reach by getting involved in a fundraiser — such as the virtual Newark Half Marathon, Mansfield 10k, skydiving and more — or by making a one-off donation or a regular gift.

You can find out more about fundraising on Reach’s website: reachuk.org.

£10 a month could help subsidise on person’s place on a Reach holiday. £50 could help fund a monthly social.

Speaking at the service, Steve said: “Please stay with us for the next exciting chapter.”

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