FORTY years ago the life of people with learning difficulties in South Holland was enriched when a club opened giving them access to better leisure facilities.
Gateway Club is still going strong and members celebrated that remarkable anniversary on Friday with a party and disco at their weekly venue, Broad Street Methodist Church in Spalding.
More surprising still is that many of the original members go to the club and some of the volunteers who help out each week have been going from the beginning.
Among them are Maurice and Vera Chappell, of Glenside South, West Pinchbeck, who say that up to the point that the club opened there was virtually no provision for people with learning difficulties.
“If you had offspring with learning disabilities, you had a job for life,” say the couple whose daughter Claire was born in 1965 with Down’s Syndrome. “The Education Act didn’t come in until 1971 with compulsory education for everyone. Initially, the club really enriched their lives in so many ways, such as giving them opportunities to go away.”
They recall that the medical officer for health for South Holland at that time, Dr Fielding, asked Betty Edmonds, who was then headmistress of the Garth School, to run a small training centre for people with learning difficulties in order to provide a break for parents.
Betty went on to form the Mencap Society with a small group of parents and, just after Claire was born, Maurice and Vera joined too – in fact, Vera was on the Mencap committee before Claire was born and Maurice went on to become chairman of Spalding Mencap.
Maurice says: “On the Mencap committee we had two young ladies, Jane Lacey (Merriott) and Sue Billings (Waters) and they suggested we ought to do something like the Gateway Club. It was a gateway to better leisure facilities really and they were the driving force behind it. We got involved in it and it was mainly to give parents a couple of hours break on a Friday night.”
Maurice approached the Rev Tony Gledhill, who invited the group to meet at Broad Street Methodist Church, and Maurice says: “He received us with open arms and Broad Street has been really fantastic to us ever since and never charged us anything.”
There have always been willing volunteers, both from the church and the community, including David Houghton who has been helping for almost 40 years, and Henry and Mary Belton.
Maurice says: “Over the years we have had a lot of help from the schools, particularly Pat Lake, who would send her top year pupils from the Gleed Girls’ School, and that went on for a lot of years. Pat did the catering for the party.
“The ideal situation would be one to one, but over 40 years we have done exceptionally well with the people we have had. They have all been brilliant people and most of them have no connection with learning disabilities at all. A number have died – 40 years is a long time.”
The diverse skills of the helpers helped to widen the range of activities that members enjoy, such as snooker, table tennis, tennis, sewing, wood work and crafts when they had volunteers with an interest in those topics, as well as weekends away.
The group began with about 40 members and that number has been maintained, although Vera believes there could be more. “They love coming,” she says. “Over the years they have done lots of things, and it’s such a shame that more don’t come.”
Various charity groups as well as individuals have helped to make sure that people living in scattered communities had transport to the club, with Rotary, Lions and Round Table clubs all helping. Maurice says South Holland Rotary Club and Spalding Lions are still paying for transport.
Eventually, the club got its own mini bus, which is shared with the Garth School, and needed volunteer drivers. There have been a number of those, but Maurice and Vera mention two, David Houghton and Charles Cherry, who has just stopped driving the mini bus at 80 but is using his own car instead.
Currently there are four or five people who help regularly, most of them like Maurice and Vera in their 80s, and Vera says it is now harder to get people to volunteer. Maurice and Vera haven’t missed many Friday nights at the Gateway Club, other than holidays or illness, but say they will carry on as long as they can. They add: “We appreciate the dedication of the people who have come to help us over the 40 years – and we’d be very pleased to see more helpers too.”
To find out what goes on at the Gateway Club go along on a Friday night between 7pm and 9pm.