What are you doing for Valentine’s Day? Going out for a meal? Taking your loved one to the cinema? Snuggling up together on the sofa?
Being in a relationship is something that many people take for granted.
Others are out enjoying single life – meeting new people, going out on dates.
Imagine how hard it would be if you suffered from a learning disability.
You would still have that normal desire to be in a relationship or to have a sexual experience, but not only do you have the pressure of dating, you have to find someone willing to accept you for, well, being you. Learning disability and all.
For many people that can be a frightening and seemingly impossible thing to do.
That’s where Stars in the Sky Hampshire comes in.
The Stars in the Sky dating agency featured on hit Channel 4 program The Undateables and has proved popular, reaffirming the need for such a service in the area.
Stars in the Sky Hampshire is a charity which provides leisure, dating and friendship network for people with learning difficulties.
For Sophie Morton, 20, Ian Kemp, 33, and Stuart Aitkenhead, 23, it has been more than just a dating agency.
Sophie says: ‘It’s really helped me a lot. I have made some amazing friends here.
‘When I started I didn’t have many friends. It’s definitely boosted my confidence.’
Stuart says: ‘We are like a big family. If I hadn’t come here, I don’t know what I would do. If you have any problems the staff help you, they are unbelievable.’
Ian says: ‘It’s helped me a lot. Before I joined I never did anything.
‘Since I have joined I have made lots of friends and have been out meeting new people. The staff are here whenever I need them. I wouldn’t change Stars in the Sky for the world.’
Stars in the Sky normally runs 10 social events a month, from discos to bowling nights to advice workshops.
‘There’s even been a Stars in the Sky wedding,’ says Sophie.
‘That was my best event. It was really good, quite emotional, but really nice. That was definitely my best outing with Stars in the Sky.’
On Saturday it is holding a Valentine’s disco, but it’s not all group social events, as Stars in the Sky also offers a chaperone service for dates and provides support while the date is happening.
The charity gets people of all ages signing up from all over the south.
Nicole Hamerton is the Stars in the Sky Hampshire project manager.
‘We get people calling us up from even as far away as Cornwall,’ says Nicole.
‘We are the furthest south charity that does anything like this.
‘We take members from 18 years old all the way up. Our oldest member is 66.
‘When some people join they have never been on a date before, which is really sad.
‘When they have been with us a while, they go on dates and go to discos. Some people just join up to socialise.
‘They just want a place to come and sit and hold hands. It’s really sweet.’
For Stuart it’s more about having a place to safely spend time with his girlfriend, Natasha.
He enthuses: ‘I’m in a relationship with the girl of my dreams. She also comes here, we met through college last January. She’s lovely, things are really looking up for me.’
Ian, on the other hand, would like to meet a girlfriend through the service. He says: ‘I’ve had a girlfriend before and I am hoping, but as long as I’ve got my friends around me, then that’s the main thing.’
Members can sign up for either just simple Facebook access or full yearly membership.
Nicole says: ‘Once they have been on the Facebook group and start to see everybody talking about these social events, that’s when they want to come along.
‘They can start on the Facebook page, get some confidence and the next thing they are at a disco with all their new friends.’
Stars in the Sky has over 100 members and new applications have been pouring in.
Stars in the Sky meets all the new members face to face and people have to be referred to the charity, through a social worker, doctor or other professional.
It seems that Stars in the Sky is so much more than just a dating agency, it’s a whole circle of friends.
Sophie says: ‘I have only been on one date so far, but I just like going on the social events, like the discos – they’re really good.
‘For me, it’s more about friendship’
HOW TO GET IN TOUCH
THERE certainly was love in the air last year. Paula and Bobby Stott tied the knot in October – after meeting through Stars in the Sky in 2007.
The couple, who live in Southsea, hit it off at leisure activities organised by the charity. They joined Stars in the Sky in search of love and friendship and certainly found it.
Volunteers at the organisation chaperoned them on their first three dates and the charity organised everything at the wedding, from the flowers to the reception at Milton Village Hall. Other members came along to celebrate.
Project manager Nicole Hamerton said: ‘Everybody was emotional, it is their dream - to meet somebody and get married. It was good for them to see that it is possible.’
THE Fareham-based charity was set up by Nicole Hamerton in 2007.
Her daughter Hollie, who has learning disabilities, was just about to finish college and Nicole feared that once she had, Hollie’s social life would suffer.
That’s when she decided to start Stars in the Sky.
Nicole says: ‘People with learning disabilities have needs too. If we don’t support them to do this in a safe environment, then they will just do it elsewhere.
‘They are vulnerable members of the community and they can be taken advantage of or ridiculed.
‘It is important to support them and to give them confidence to build relationships in the right way.’
Stars in the Sky was set up to provide a friendship network, but provides a wide range of services from job advice, workshops on independent living and all-round confidence building.
‘This project is about making them feel good and about belonging so we do all we can,’ says Nicole.
The charity, which operates out of offices on West Street, is largely run by volunteers who dedicate a lot of time and effort into making the charity work.
‘All the volunteers bring an amazing amount of skills to our organisation. I couldn’t do it without them,’ says Nicole.
However, Stars in the Sky does desperately need funding to continue. Nicole says: ‘Applying for funding is a full-time job. We can’t let up, we will fight because we know how much Stars in the Sky means to our members. It’s hard at the moment and every penny helps.’