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‘You’ve got a friend in me…’ the catchy Randy Newman song made famous by the first Toy Story film in the mid 1990s.
Tying in perfectly with the over-riding message of the Friends for Leisure charity based in Cheshire.
Friends for Leisure is an organisation which arranges activities for disabled children and young people aged between 5 and 21, from arranging one-to-one friendships to group activities such as drama and sports sessions.
The aim? To remove the social exclusion of children and young people with disabilities whilst also raising awareness of the importance of equality and inclusion.
As Sue Conway, fundraising and marketing co-ordinator at Friends for Leisure, explains.
“What we are doing is trying to address the social isolation that disabled young people can often experience,” says Sue.
“That is something that has been an issue for many years.
“It was back in 1995 that various people got together and worked out that disabled young people’s education and health needs were – on the whole – being met, but nobody was considering their social needs.
“So many of them have no friends…so what we do is provide friends.
“In the Cheshire East area, 400 young people travel out of the Borough for their education due to a lack of the necessary special schools which they require.
“Those young people may travel in a taxi, sometimes with other children but sometimes on their own, and those daily journeys may take a very long time.
“As a result, they don’t meet up with other children from just around the corner, or get to see and interact with other young people.
“They don’t tend to join Scouts, or Brownies, or go to football classes.
“And sometimes there may be difficulties around the providers of those community activities not having the capacity to deal with some of the issues young people may present around behaviour or personal care.
“We can’t provide a personal carer, but we can provide friends.
“The young people can either come to the activities we provide, or might choose to do something else that other people have organised, but they don’t want to go with Mum or Dad – they would rather go with a mate.
“All of the friends we provide are volunteers, and that is where the funding from the Steve Morgan Foundation is going to make such a real difference.”
A grant of £19,632 has been awarded over three years to help with funding for a Volunteer Co-Ordinator, shaped so as to be focused on the part of the area the charity cover which sits within the criteria for the Steve Morgan Foundation.
And this, with volunteers so vital to the success of Friends for Leisure, will prove an extremely important role.
“Obviously we have to be very diligent,” Sue explains.
“We are working with a very vulnerable group of young people, and we also have to ensure that the volunteers are safe.
“A lot of the volunteers are young people themselves – in fact 80% are under 21 years old.
“Volunteers are generally recruited from schools and colleges, via a robust process including obtaining all the necessary references and DBS checks.
“The process starts with a telephone interview to identify which young people may be suitable for volunteering, followed by a face-to-face interview as the next step.
“All being well, they are then inducted and introduced to whatever activities are most appropriate for them.
“Some of the volunteers will come to our group activities, some will have one-to-one friendships with a disabled young person, or for others it might be less formal where they just meet and hang out together, maybe for a coffee, to make music, or watch a DVD at home.
“Having someone to share some company with makes such a huge difference.”
‘Think ability not disability’ is the slogan adorning the Friends for Leisure website and that is another key and over-riding message aimed at encouraging positivity.
“There is quite a strong lack of ambition on the part of some young people with disabilities or their parents,” adds Sue.
“They don’t expect to be able to do certain things or don’t perhaps feel that they will get the opportunities.
“We know that sometimes you can challenge young people and suggest they can have a go at certain things and they will respond.
“Sometimes we can give them a taste of an activity that they can do outside Friends for Leisure – Kickboxing as one example – and they go along and enjoy it and it becomes something they take part in regularly.
“It is all about giving them the confidence to try and to go into it positively.
“Looking at the overall picture, if we didn’t have the volunteers that the Steve Morgan Foundation is helping to fund then we wouldn’t be able to operate.
“They are absolutely essential to the way we work.
“With the funding now received, we will be able to look at continuing to recruit more volunteers and support those that we already have.”