I had hoped to include a bunch of newspaper articles from my time working for the East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST). Unfortunately, any I have are currently squirrelled away in a storage unit, awaiting a clear out.
So I have included them here with a few personal notes.
|1. Kick starting EAST|
2. Stretham’s Old Rectory
3. New home creates 30 jobs
4. Jane adds a touch of sparkle
5. Princess drops by to plant a juniper
Kick starting EAST
The first article “Son inspires parents’ million pound crusade” tells the story of how EAST came about. Owen and Maggie Spencer-Thomas’s eldest son (let’s call him John) was living hundreds of miles away in Devon. In the late 1980’s, this was the closest specialist accommodation available.
I’m not a parent, but even I can imagine how desperate this must be for any mother or father. It is tough enough that your child has autism and is failing to connect with you in the conventional way. It is even tougher still when you can only spend a few hours with him once a month. I can completely understand Owen and Maggie’s desire to bring their son home.
By the time I arrived in 1994, he had been in Devon for six or seven years. He was getting close to the end of his teens and the time when he would be ejected from full time education into…what? There had been no facility available for children like John in Cambridgeshire as a teenager. There certainly was nothing for him as an adult.
So was born the idea of the £1 million project, to build specialist accommodation for young adults in Cambridgeshire. There was no expectation that this would benefit John. But it would provide the first specialised provision for these young people in the county. And in consequence, kickstart other similar local projects, that would benefit John.
And I was brought on board to assist with the fundraising.
As part of the fundraising campaign, Owen and Maggie used a picture of John, as a young boy. John may have been hundreds of miles away, but he was with us every day. We and other loyal volunteers stuffed envelopes, or handed them out at events. And we never for one second forgot who this was all for. He was our collective inspiration.
Stretham’s Old Rectory
The original plan was to secure land to erect a purpose-built home for the young adults. But in the end, an old derelict building was identified, Stretham Old Rectory.
By this time, Owen had secured a unique partnership with Hereward Housing (now Sanctuary Housing). This was along with five district Councils, as well as Cambridgeshire County Council.
This partnership brought with it funding from the councils and building expertise from Hereward Housing. Taking an old derelict building and renovating it fitted the bill of all three camps. It was in the heart of Cambridgeshire, and in a small, close-knit community. Perfect for the residents who prefer peace, quiet and solitude.
The new home creates 30 jobs
The new home, soon to be renamed Juniper House, provided thirty new jobs for the local area: “£1m centre for autistics will create 30 jobs“.
And one of those workers was my friend, SJ.
By the time the home opened, I was working as an IT Technician at a residential home for children with cerebral palsy. This is where I met new support worker, SJ.
Such is the nature of Cambridge, it turned out we had a friend or two in common. And not only that. She had been a support worker at Juniper House.
Our most interesting conversation was about how she believed the house was haunted. She often worked the night shift and was always hearing strange noises in the home. She does not believe it disturbed the residents. But it certainly gave the support workers some interesting experiences.
Jane adds a touch of sparkle
I am unclear if I actually attended the event with Jane Asher (sorry, Jane).
Owen believes I did. But sadly, it has slipped my mind. What I do remember is Maggie hugging Jane’s latest cookbook, hoping to get her autograph! I will have to see if we can dig it out and get a photo up on one of our websites.
Princess drops by to plant a juniper
I have had two brushes with royalty as a result of working for EAST. Owen’s MBE award*, and the official opening of Juniper House by HRH Princess Anne.
Anne is the patron of the National Autistic Society and the natural choice for an opening day figure head. And she did not disappoint.
By this time, I was working elsewhere. But I was delighted to be invited back, as a special guest, to attend the day.
As you can imagine, the village was thrilled with the attention Stretham was receiving. Villagers lined the streets to greet the Princess.
I have a vague recollection that HRH was arriving by helicopter, and it was delayed. But arrive she did, and we were asked to stand in line to greet her.
I was determined I was going to remain in the background and just enjoy all the pomp and ceremony. Owen, however, had other ideas!
As I moved backwards, Owen gently moved me back in line. “You are one of the reasons this day is happening”, he said. “You deserve your moment, just like the rest of us”.
“But I haven’t practiced my courtesy”, I panicked. I have no idea if I managed a courtesy, a bow, or anything at all. But HRH didn’t seem to mind, whatever I did or didn’t manage.
She asked me what my role was. Incapable of speech, Owen said I was EAST’s fundraiser. I had worked out of his front room for three years, helping to coordinate our events and activities. I believe Annes response was, “How extraordinary, I hope you managed to get out of the front room now!” I mumbled an incoherent response and the lovely lady moved on.
Other memories of the day was the tapestry of Brother Juniper, the new home’s namesake. Brother Juniper is reported to be the first known person to have autism. A gentle soul, who was cared for by St Francis of Assis.
Each visitor was invited to create a stitch in the tapestry. And the finished piece hung on the wall in the home. I am unsure where it resides now, as the home has been sold on. It would be lovely to see it again.
Princess Anne’s other job was to plant a juniper tree in the grounds. A great occasion on the day, but short lived. A resident took exception to the change and ripped it out. (I believe it was replaced, with no further distress to the resident).
*I had the pleasure of helping Maggie pull together the citations for Owen’s MBE application. The medal was presented to him in 2008 by HRH Queen Elizabeth. A page on this will appear soon.