‘Before I came here I felt isolated’

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In a brightly-lit room full of vivid colours and tempting toys, Archie Cleaver takes a few important steps.

Supported by mum Vicky and teacher Nora and gripping a walking aid, he struggles with every tiny movement.

Archie Cleaver with his mum Vicky

Archie Cleaver with his mum Vicky

But the two-year-old is defying doctors’ expectations – something that this remarkable little chap does on a regular basis.

Archie wasn’t expected to walk. In fact he wasn’t expected to sit up, feed or communicate.

There was a time when Vicky thought her son, born with widespread brain damage, might not survive at all.

But these days the smiley little boy understands some of her words, can sit up with only a little assistance, gets around with mum’s help and a walker and has even learned to throw peanuts for squirrels in the park.

That’s partly down to Vicky’s determination to treat Archie like other children and try new things.

But it’s also due to the work of Fareham’s Rainbow Centre, where mum and son have been attending development sessions for a year.

‘This place has been life-changing,’ says Vicky, taking a break from a session where the under-threes Honey Bee group have been working on new skills and movements.

‘I felt very isolated before I came here. When you have a child with severe special needs you sometimes think you’re the only one.

‘Suddenly there were all these parents with the same but different stories and we help each other and muddle through together.’

But social interaction with people who understand is only one of the benefits of the Rainbow Centre.

Archie, who was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, is receiving a programme of conductive education.

That is a system of learning for the individual that improves movement, communication and understanding.

Archie, who will be three in October, has his own mat with toys selected for his development.

The little boy, Vicky and Nora work on stretching exercises and then communication with Archie sat in front of a mirror to see his reactions.

He can sit up with help and grip a wooden bar for support while holding a crayon and dragging it along paper.

‘He wouldn’t have been able to hold that crayon before he came here,’ says Vicky. ‘His hand was in a fist, he didn’t have use of his hands at all.’

The room where the Honey Bees are busy learning is bright, cheerful and full of colourful pictures, toys and hanging decorations.

In a corridor outside, there are photographs of the children on the wall with their latest achievements printed underneath.

Under a picture of a smiling Archie it reads: ‘I can now sit on the floor with just the help of a touch of a finger.’

Vicky, who lives in Portsmouth, is extremely proud of her boy, who has his own way of celebrating life’s little triumphs. ‘He punches his fist as if to say “yes”,’ she laughs.

She was particularly pleased recently when she asked Archie to throw a peanut for the squirrels in the park and he did.

‘At first I thought “he dropped that with style” but then he did it again. It’s great because it shows understanding and control,’ says Vicky.

In the Rainbow Centre’s sensory garden, Archie, who is registered visually impaired/blind but can track movement, loves the herbs, flowers and shiny hanging decorations and enjoys going on the swings.

Vicky and the other parents were relieved the centre wasn’t forced to close recently. Fundraisers rallied to save the vital facility, exceeding the target of £150,000 to keep it open.

‘We wouldn’t know what to do if it closed. We’d have to meet at each other’s houses,’ says Vicky.

Cerebral palsy is caused by a problem in the parts of the brain controlling muscles, and learning movement and developing muscles isn’t always easy for Archie.

It can be exhausting and sometimes there are tears.

But the hard work is having a huge impact and, considering the little boy’s prospects when he was born, is absolutely worth it.

There were complications during Archie’s birth and Vicky had to come to terms with her baby’s brain damage.

‘At first they didn’t even think I was going to be able to take him home and then I thought he wouldn’t be able to do anything for himself,’ she says.

‘I’d always wanted to be a mum, I’d planned everything. I was going to teach him sign language before he could talk, I was going to teach him to read. In an instant all that changed and this wasn’t the baby I’d been pregnant with.

‘Then I just looked at him and felt this overwhelming love and I thought “it really doesn’t matter”.’

Determined to treat Archie as if he was like any child, she asked if she could try feeding him, even though she was told he still needed a tube.

Archie now eats pureed food.

One of the best moments of Vicky’s life was when her boy first smiled.

‘I was putting my hair up and he must have caught the movement. I was thrilled because again it showed movement and understanding. And he hasn’t stopped smiling and laughing since.’

That’s down to the Rainbow Centre but also the spirit and determination of Vicky and Archie.

‘We do everything I wanted to do with my child but we just have to adapt,’ she says.

‘What can I say? We’re a good team me and Archie.’

The Rainbow Centre supports children and adults with cerebral palsy and adults who have had a stroke or have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or a head injury.

Through the system of learning called Conductive Education, staff encourage and teach participants to take an active role in their own development.

They focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t, and inspire everyone to reach their full potential.

A few months ago the charity launched an urgent appeal to save it from closure. The public responded by reaching the target of £150,000 in just two months.

Donations have now exceeded that target but the centre continuously needs support. For information, or to find out if you can benefit from the charity’s work, visit rainbowcentre.org or call (01329) 289500.

Vicky Cleaver raises money for Archie to attend the centre and for facilities like a walker. To find out more about his progress and see his Just Giving link, visit facebook.com/archiesheroes.