A Sister’s Legacy

Born with profound and multiple learning disabilities, Lisa Dixon’s parents would drive her from Haswell to Cheltenham to access specialist treatment and physiotherapy. It was ridiculously expensive.

Although Lisa’s parents covered the cost, when neighbours found out, they turned up at the house to help raise funds for the centre for brain damaged children in Cheltenham, hosing coffee mornings and raffles. The movement outgrew Lisa’s family home into the church hall. Mencap approached Lisa’s mum, asking if she’d consider setting up a local group to help others across the district.

“My mum set up Haswell Mencap in ‘76,” Lisa’s sister, Hayley Hood, explains. Hayley got a job in an architect’s office. Her boss also had a daughter with learning disabilities and offered to design a building for the group if Hayley could raise £1.3m to build it. Which she did.

The Lisa Dixon Centre opened in 2007.

“Sadly, before we opened the building my sister passed away, which is why the building is named The Lisa Dixon Centre. I find it really hard to talk about,” Hayley said choking up.

Hayley had sat on the board of the charity since she was 18, and the new centre needed a CEO to launch its social enterprises – a café, shop, function space and catering service – whose profits would feed the charity and help support the day care service for adults with learning disabilities.

Determined to get the job, she stepped down from the board. An independent panel was employed.

“I had to go in front of the panel at interview, but I got the job and have been there ever since.”

The centre grew to become a haven for the vulnerable or isolated, with a busy café. “A lot of the elderly in the village pop in for breakfast and stay all day just for the company.”

Alongside the day services, busy shops and café, it had a night-time social programme, so carers had respite in the evenings and people with learning disabilities socialised with their peers in a crafts club, drama group, and IT club; around 90 of them would meet on a Friday night for a ‘disco and a pint’.

Then Covid-19 hit.

Financially, the centre was already feeling the effects of austerity. Hayley saw people had less disposable income with more shopping online which had a knock-on effect on her retail shops and cafe. Before lockdown in February, the accounts saw a huge dip as the elderly stayed away. Lockdown forced closure in March.

“At that point, the needs of the people we serve, they got greater. It wasn’t morally right for us to just sit back and let the pandemic rule over everything. So, we set up a food bank as part of The Haswell’s Helping Hands in my garage in the village.” The team not only did welfare checks and sent food, treats and activity packs to their members with learning disabilities, they volunteered to deliver food parcels for the elderly and activity packs for children stuck at home, as well as over 1,000 meals for children in need and the vulnerable.

Care needs had increased. Without money to pay staff, they couldn’t re-open the centre safely. They needed to move the shop and public spaces away from the day care services, and to use the freed-up space for social distancing.

Key Fund gave them a lifeline £45k grant from the Social Enterprise Support Fund, made possible thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

“When we got the phone-call, I could instantly put the wheels in motion and get the staff back.”

Before lockdown, the staff team went for a last drink together as they didn’t know how long they’d be away.

“I said to them, I was going to make a promise,” Hayley choked up. “I’ve gone again! I said to the staff, I’m going to make one promise and that’s when we open the doors, we are all going back through them.”

All 13 staff returned. “I’ve never known stress like it. I was so hell bent on keeping that promise.”

The service has resumed with bubbles of six. The team bought iPads so they can communicate with other bubbles. They can reach those unable to physically attend via Zoom, and are looking at a larger digital project with national Mencap. They’re trialling take-aways as they can’t open the café due to social distancing rules and space, and opened up their outside catering.

“It can change at the drop of a hat as well, but we’re just adapting, we’re used to having to adapt, the staff have been amazing and have moulded into whatever I’ve needed them to just to get us through.”

The foodbank has continued and moved out of Hayley’s garage by partnering with the charity Feeding Families, who put the food parcels together for Hayley’s team to distribute to families in need.

Not only did the staff wrap their arms around their members and the wider community, the team also became closer.

“Every single one of us has had to step outside of our normal role and do so many different things, I mean we’ve been painters, decorators, plumbers, we’ve been out delivering – to make sure we could just get through. They just rose to the challenge.”

Without that grant though, Hayley said there was a risk they could have closed.

“I would have gone down kicking and screaming put it that way, but we were in the most vulnerable position we’ve ever, ever been in.”

Not out of the woods, Hayley feels ready to keep battling.

“Every time the staff answer the phone, ‘hello the Lisa Dixon Centre’, her name is mentioned so many times every single day. Not many people leave a legacy like that behind do they?”

 

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