In 1994, I moved to Cambridge to work as the Community Fundraiser for the East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST). This was a new charity, started just two years earlier. And was run from the front room of Owen Spencer-Thomas‘s, house. Along with his wife, Maggie, their aim was to build a purpose-built home. Juniper House became the first specialised unit for young adults with autism in Cambridgeshire. Although I was only with the charity for just under three years, Owen and his family have remained life-long friends. And much of the knowledge I gained about charitable work stems from this brief time at EAST.
As my Charity Background explains, I volunteered my services with Scope for six months after University. With this experience under my belt, I was ready to find something that paid. I have family in Sussex and the East Anglian region, so I sent speculative letters to a number of charities in these areas.
In December 1993, my letter landed on the doormat of a small charity in Cambridgeshire. The East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST) had just decided to employ a fundraiser.
They were looking for a part-time Community Fundraiser to arrange small fundraising and awareness events. This would allow their chairman, Owen Spencer-Thomas, to focus on corporate and charitable trust donations. So, having received my letter, Owen gave me a call.
I am going to interject a little story here. Owen called me to invite me to an interview with a view to offering me the job. He said it was only part time, would last just three months. And the pay would only be £7/hour. This was double what I earned delivering cars during University. And still more than most of my friends.
I asked Owen if I could take a moment to think about it. And I swear this is true. I put the phone done and did a little Laura “Love Actually” Linney happy dance. I then picked up the phone, and in my best business voice, accepted the terms.
So began a three-month contract that was to last for nearly three years. And see me move to Cambridgeshire on a permanent basis.
Back to EAST
EAST was run out of the front room of Owen and Maggie Spencer-Thomas’s house. With two boys on the autistic spectrum, they had embarked on a £1 million project to support autism. This was to build the only home in Cambridgeshire for young adults with autism. Their eldest son was continuing to live in a special school in Devon at the age of 19. And they wanted to bring him home.
Whilst this project may have been Owen and Maggie’s brainchild, there was no guarantee their son would live there. But, once projects like these start, they can snowball. Local councils begin to see the need in their county. And from this, those people with autism, who had been placed miles away from their family, can be accommodated back in their home county.
To fund the project, we needed fundraising opportunities, and a band of merry volunteers to support our events.
Like Scope, the majority of my work was to arrange aerobathons. I’m afraid to say that after three years of aerobathons, my overriding memory of them is dread. I am an uncoordinated elephant when it comes to such events.
But aerobics in the 90s were huge, especially step-aerobics. Fitness videos were big business. Donned in neon lycra leotards, every film star was releasing their version of the Jane Fonda fitness video. For a charity worker, this was sponsorship gold.
But whilst the aerobathons were numerous, they were popular, and for the fundraiser easy to arrange. Most of the work was carried out by the fitness instructor who badgered their classes to take part. The only real effort on my part was providing the leaflets, press release and on-day support. And as you can see from the links, I had expert help from our journalist chairman, Owen.
Capitalise on crazes
A little advice here. If you are in the middle of a “craze”, capitalise on it.
When I was a kid, each year our summer activity changed. First year was bikes, second year was roller skating. Then cricket, then football, then skateboarding. I wish someone had asked us to take part in a sponsored event. All we ever did was walk laps of our (albeit very pretty) school playing field.
This event happened by chance because of a young lad with autism and his love of trampolines.
During the summer holidays, a trampoline club let this young lad use a trampoline for an hour a day. He loved it.
As I mentioned with the aerobathons, his mother capitalised on the idea and set up a sponsored Tramponline event. Anyone could join, including the boy. He probably had no idea what was happening around him. But for the people taking part, he was the perfect advert for who was benefiting from the money. My charity display boards had never received so much attention.
It was a huge success. And not just for us.
The local press came, took photos, interviewed the mother and ran a piece in the local paper. Suddenly the community had a new love and respect for the young boy in their community, and his special needs.
This event was a lot of fun. It featured a Fitness club for kids, to get them interested in exercise, and was held at the Atrium club in Ely.
There were various games and races involving obstacle courses, and other fun activities. Again, EAST families came along to join in.
But my overriding memory is of EAST’s 6’4″ chairman, Owen, bouncing up and down the hall on a space hopper.
30-mile bike ride
This was my most favourite event. Living out at Swavesey, I used to cycle round the villages at the weekend. I realised that it wasn’t all that far to cycle to Cambridge. A germ of an idea was born.
We devised a figure of eight cycle route between Oakington and Cambridge. This meant we could create a bike ride of 15, 30, and as it turned out 45 and 60 miles.
We announced the event to family and friends of EAST and the bike ride event was born. Being our first foray into something like this, we deliberately kept the event small. I think we were a band of 30 participants.
Though we informed the police of the event, no marshals were required, nor signposting. We just gave the participants maps of the route. We used public roads and cycle paths (pre-busway) and all participants were local to the area.
A couple of us went on ahead to points we thought might cause confusion, to act as sign posts. And the Spencer-Thomas’s deliberately hung back to ensure no one got lost.
One or two family members were avid cyclists so they completed the course twice – 60 miles. Good training for their big charity riding events.
What astounded us was the number of youngsters who took part and completed the entire 30-mile route. We thought they would struggle with the 15 miles. A good lesson in never underestimating your supporters. They can quite literally go the extra mile!
We started at 10am from EAST’s base in Cambridge and took a leisurely ride. People were stopping off en-route at pubs and parks for lunch, refreshment and a play on the swings. But despite this, everyone was back by 4pm having had a thoroughly good time. And we raised a nice tidy sum to boot.
Sawston 10th anniversary Fun Run
One of my last events with EAST was the Sawston Fun Run.
A popular event, even today, the Sawston Fun Run has been going since 1986.
In 1996, we successfully applied to be a beneficiary. By this time EAST had secured some large grants and donations. As a result we were in a position to start working in partnership with Hereward Housing and five local councils. We had managed to secure a building for our project, Stretham Old Rectory. Once renovated and renamed as Juniper House, we now needed funding to furnish it.
The Fun Run proved more beneficial than we could have hoped.
One of our tasks for the Fun Run was to secure prizes for the raffle. At the time, Owen suggested I didn’t need to give much of my time and effort to this. The money was to be split between numerous charities, and he felt we probably won’t get much.
The other charities (Compass Trust – Tea Room Project, Sawston Fire Service Benevolent Fund, British Red Cross and Magpas) were all local or better-known than ours.
In a rare moment of obstinacy, I ignored Owen!
I spent a day walking the length and breadth of Sawston High Street. I begged for and secured prizes from practically every business I could find.
Meanwhile, Owen asked local celebrity (and friend), Helen McDermott from Anglia TV, to start the race. Bless her, she even took part.
Many members of EAST and their families also entered the 5 mile race. There were kids with autism walking, jogging or being wheeled round the course in pushchairs. Mums, dads, brothers, sisters, even nans and grandads. Families of autism were doing something for themselves. And people could see who was benefiting from the money raised.
We even received dedicated EAST medals:
£15,500 was raised that year. The race coordinator, Gerry Holloway, said that no-one before us had ever secured that many prizes. As a result, we were delighted to receive £10,000. This was enough to fully furnish a room in Juniper House.
Supporting young families
Whilst EAST was predominately about fundraising for Juniper House, the charity also provided other invaluable services to parents.
Enabling Through Information
EAST received BT sponsorship to develop an ‘Enabling Through Information’ pack, largely complied by Owen’s wife, Maggie.
It contained a wealth of information on autism and where to get support:
- How to get statements
- Suitable education
- How to source care placements
- Where to find respite care and get it funded
- Contact numbers for support groups
- Contact details and information about funding bodies, and much more besides.
It was a means of empowering parents at a time when they were at their most vulnerable.
Meetings and autism-friendly creche
EAST also ran a monthly meeting at the Children’s Development Centre at the Addenbrooke’s hospital’s Rosie Maternity unit. It included a children’s creche to give parents respite time.
This allowed parents to take part in the meeting and discuss their problems, current issues, etc.
An unexpected part of my role, therefore, was the support of families.
When I took the role, I was to be a fundraiser. It never even crossed my mind that I would be in touch with families of autism.
But as we worked out of the family home, we were a hotline for families. Many had just received a diagnosis about their child and were desperate for support and information.
Owen and Maggie were often out on other family or EAST orientated meetings. So I was the one often answering the phone during the day.
Although initially unprepared, it transpired that I had a natural talent for empathy and support of families in need. I was a friendly voice helping to provide information and support in what I soon learned could be their darkest hour.
Of all the vital skills I learned working at EAST, I believe this ability to support and empower people has been the driving force through my career.
My work choices may have taken me down a path of Information Technology. But it is this skill which has been one of the overriding reasons that I secured the roles:
- IT Support worker at Meldreth Manor School for profound disabilities
- Assistive Technology specialist at Long Road 6th Form College
- Computer officer and latterly Front-Line Services IT Manager at the University of Cambridge
They all draw on my ability to empathise, empower and understand the needs of those who struggle with accessing IT.
Owen has managed to locate newspaper articles of EAST’s activities.