In 2011, BBC Panorama broadcast a shocking investigation into the abuse of adults with learning difficulties in a care home. Footage showed physical and mental torture. Julie and Paul were left reeling.
Their son James was born in 2000 with irreparable brain damage. Alongside cerebral palsy, in 2018 it was discovered he had a rare genetic disorder, PURA Syndrome. Now in his twenties, unable to speak and with limited motor skills, James requires intensive 24-hour care.
After watching Panorama, the couple had a difficult conversation.
Paul explains. “At that time, he was only 10 years old. At that point, Julie was going to care for him for the rest of her life. I said, listen love, you’ll be mentally or physically incapable of caring for James at some stage. Do we wait till you’re 80 and James is 50?”
Paul imagined the scenario, where they had no quality of life. “Then we get a knock on the door from social services, they take him away somewhere he doesn’t want to go, and we end up in an old people’s home.”
“The biggest issue parents have is trust,” Paul said. “Who can we trust to care for our loved one?”
Julie knew about growing up in care. Her parents were unable to support her and her seven brothers and sisters. Unlike the horror stories, her experience was a good one. She described it as outdoorsy, a community family, akin to The Walton’s.
“We thought, well what about a community-based farm where James can grow old with other adults with special needs? There was only one option – to spend the rest of our lives trying to create this farm.”
They formed the charity, JPC Community Farm in 2016, to provide respite for special needs adults and their families. With apartments and tailored events, the farm gives meaningful support to nine clients per day.
Paul was aware there was more need, but to offer more services he needed operational funds. A café – The Orangery – would bring the wider community in, offer employment to people with learning difficulties, and could develop a ‘field to fork’ model, with food grown by clients on the farm.
A local school teacher, Barbara, had worked in a secondary school for 30 years but primarily with Special Needs classes. Barbara had followed the farm project and went to take a look around. When Paul offered her a job to develop an educational hub on the farm and at the Orangery, the huge hit in salary led her to some soul searching, but she was sold on the idea.
Barbara built links with colleges so she could teach accredited courses on the farm. She also wrote her own course unique to the farm for their students to ensure all could participate and learn. They also took on Amiee, who has Down Syndrome, and was their first client in the new café to learn cooking and waitressing skills.
They worked with the local college offering formal training at the café, successfully putting the first cohort through an eight-week course, with the intention to follow-up with internships and apprenticeships.
Then Covid-19 hit.
“It’s been truly horrendous,” Paul said. “We got the Key Fund money in September 2019, we opened the restaurant on the 13 December, and we were absolutely flying till the first lockdown on 23rd March.”
Despite being open a short time and in the traditionally slow winter months, turnover was £56k in the first quarter, with a forecasted annual turnover of £300k. The educational hub would also be an additional revenue stream.
As the operational money dried up from the café in lockdown, with just a £10k Covid grant from their Local Authority and no meaningful government support as a new enterprise, Barbara put all her energies in the educational side.
“Out of the hospitality industry being on its knees, the educational side has been a beacon of light. We were being asked by NHS, local authorities, social workers saying we have kids having major meltdowns here with nowhere to go, is there day care you can offer – can they come to the educational hub and get some respite?”
Alongside private clients, spaces were funded by the NHS or Local Authority. They were at full capacity with just nine clients, so are now looking at expanding.
“It’s been a real emotional journey. It’s been really tough on us mentally this last year, I’m getting upset thinking about it,” Paul said. “It’s tested us as individuals.”
Despite the financial struggles, they have secured funds to deliver additional projects, including the ‘Care Farm’ programme.
The farm is already home to sheep and chicken, but the funds will allow them to build facilities to look after rescue animals.
Barbara said: “We’ve had Julian Norton from Channel 5’s Yorkshire Vet as our patron, and he’s been very knowledgeable and helped immensely.”
The farm and its clients were also filmed for the TV show. The Care Farm will be wheelchair accessible so their clients can look after the animals, as part of their therapy as well as provide exercise, especially those from the concrete surrounds of Middlesbrough. They also plan to open it to Special Needs children from local schools.
Paul said Barbara has become a “giver of hope”.
Paul, who was originally a police officer, has dedicated his all to the venture, resulting in many sleepless nights.
“Being able to get the charity through the most difficult time has been extremely tough but really rewarding. I sometimes don’t know how I’ve got through but you have to battle through it.”
Without Key Fund’s investment, Paul said they simply wouldn’t have the café or educational hub.
“What Key Fund did was priceless; they did an amazing thing believing and buying into who we are and the ethos behind it. None of those beneficiaries would have been able to get that support during one of the most difficult times I’ve had in my lifetime. It’s not just the money, it’s the support and professionalism. Key Fund has always been there for us, supporting us, spreading the good word and telling people about us, it’s been absolutely priceless. I can’t thank them enough, and we just want to be something that they’re super proud of.”
Paul added: “We need to be successful. We’ve had heartache and proper tears, because it’s so personal. Julie and I have dedicated our lives to make the farm the best. If it’s not good enough for our James it’s not good enough for anyone else.”
For 17-year-old Mali Hudson, school was a difficult time. Autistic, it was hard to communicate and interact with his class mates.
“I struggled with making friends because I didn’t want to be bullied,” Mali said.
He felt anchorless, not fitting in with educational settings, and uncertain about what the future held for him. Mali’s options seemed limited. He’d been offered litter picking for his work experience, something that left his mum crest-fallen.
His old teacher, Barbara, had left his school to run the new educational hub at JPC Community Farm.
During the second lockdown, Mali and his mum walked into their local Tesco’s to find Barbara with Paul, who runs the farm, doing a tombola to raise funds for the charity. Barbara invited them to visit.
Mali said: “After I met Barbara and Paul in Tesco, the following day I went and helped out at the farm.”
Although accredited at a local college, Barbara arranged to actually teach Mali at the farm, in an environment that would suit him better.
“I asked them to guarantee me that I wouldn’t get bullied,” Mali said. “I wanted somewhere I was loved, cared for and supported.”
Mali attends the farm during normal school times, but also visits in his holidays. (“We can’t get rid of him!” Paul joked).
He listed the friends he now has: “I’ve got friends at the farm called Luke, Josh, Charlie, Holly, Chad, Matthew, Tom and Nathan.”
As Paul said, you put lonely people like Mali together and they make friends, which is ‘what’s so magical about this place’.
“It’s made a big impact,” Mali said. “My confidence has grown through the love, support and encouragement from Barbara and Paul and everyone here. Someone in my position – why should they be treated differently because of the way they are? They should be given a chance!”
The first lockdown had been particularly hard on Mali. He was in Year 11, one of the cohorts of young people who had their exams cancelled, were forced to isolate from friends, and left with anxiety and fear. A situation that intensified when his father was hospitalised with Covid.
“It’s been a challenging time because my dad had to be admitted to hospital and I was struggling because I didn’t know if he was coming home. I was very worried.”