Three years ago two mums had one vision. It was to create a vibrant, fun place for young people with learning disabilities that sought to empower them.
With very little money in the bank and several bureaucratic hurdles to get through, their dream seemed impossible.
But it’s amazing what can be achieved from small beginnings and the power of goodwill.
Today I walk into their day centre, with laughter and excitement all around as young people busy themselves in art workshops or ready themselves for a day out.
Stonecroft House, a grand Victorian house in Leigh Road, Havant, once a children’s home that fell into disrepair, has been transformed into Chaos Support by Anita Usai and Kerry Whapshott, who are both mums of children with complex learning needs.
Their motto is: ‘It’s not what you can’t do – it’s what you can’.
Anita, 57, a former drama teacher, of Leigh Road, said she could not find anything within the local authority services that suited the needs of her own children as she looked for somewhere as they approached the end of their formal education.
Little did she know, her answer was just a short stroll from her home.
‘We started looking at properties – we looked at shop fronts, warehouses, we scoured the local area because we wanted it to be local for the people that we knew,’ says Anita, who speaks with a booming, poetic voice typical of many thespians.
‘It was in the middle of last year and the gates were open and I was driving past.
‘I stopped and jumped out of the car.’
Anita ended up chatting to the owner, and, with some persuasion, he agreed to lease the building to the pair of them.
‘We came and he opened the doors and it was like “smellovision” because it had been closed and was damp and musty,’ says Anita.
‘We walked in and thought “Oh my goodness, it’s enormous”.’
‘We walked round in complete silence and were stood on the patio waving our arms up and down in complete silence.’
Their excitement was immeasurable.
Using a loan to pay for the venture, the pair decorated the place – which has 10 bedrooms upstairs – themselves.
Anita says: ‘We worked our socks off for months and thought “Is anyone going to use us”?
‘It’s a huge thing for two mums on a mission to have a vision, a passion and know it might work.
‘All I can say now is we have had great support from volunteers who have put together activity packs.
‘It’s as if all the stars have been aligned to make this happen.
‘Every step of the way we have done it with very limited funds, we have struggled, we have scraped. It was just us day in, day out.’
But since opening at the end of last year, the enquiries have kept coming in and there are now around 35 people aged between 18 and 40 who come to the centre.
The name Chaos might seem strange for a care provider, but it is very meaningful.
It stands for Choice Health Aspiration Opportunity and Support – and much more besides.
Anita explains: ‘We were just messing round with words on a piece of paper and I just wrote chaos.
‘They want to be part of young people’s lives, just like themselves.
‘It’s not “they are holding hands” – it’s about being part of life.’
Anita and Kerry are both directors and a third director, Matthew Charters, 38, who worked in adult services at Hampshire County Council for 10 years, has come on board.
He says: ‘The thing that makes us different is we try and provide a very holistic approach.
‘We are all about involving parents in decisions.
‘We don’t run a school curriculum. Yes they come here for the day, but we support them with lots of activities that will help them move towards independence.
‘It could be about work or starting a social enterprise themselves.’
Activities could be everybody getting involved in the making of an apple pie – from finding a recipe, to going out and getting the ingredients, to rolling out the pastry and enjoying the finished result in a lively gathering at the dinner table.
Yesterday a group spent the morning gardening at Staunton Country Park and in the afternoon they went to the cinema.
He says many parents feel daunted by the fact that in some centres an 18-year-old might be sharing activities with an 80-year-old, purely based on the fact that they both have the same learning disability.
Matthew says: ‘The day that they come in and they are sitting on bean bags watching television is the day we would close.
‘That’s not what we are about and Kerry and Anita would not have it.
‘Ultimately they are still teenagers or people in their early 20s.
‘You want to be energetic, you want to be cool. Just because you have a learning disability doesn’t mean you have lost all of that.
‘This was about getting young people together and allowing them to be young people.’
But, while this is a story of triumph, it is also a story of tragedy for Anita.
Her ‘beautiful girls’, as she describes them, never made it to Chaos Support.
The twins, Alexandra and Sophie, both had Rett Syndrome, a condition affecting the development of the brain. Alexandra died at Great Ormond Street hospital in 2009, aged just 17, after spinal fusion surgery, and Sophie died last year after catching an infection, aged just 20.
Anita, choking back tears, says: ‘I do walk round every day and think “they’d love this”.
‘Had Sophie and Alexandra lived, this would definitely have been the service for them.
‘For Kerry this is now the reality and her son Connor is thoroughly enjoying it.’
While they never got to enjoy its vibrancy, Chaos Support is Alexandra’s and Sophie’s legacy to the world.
There are tears of joy as well for Anita as she receives a text from another parent, congratulating her on setting up the centre.
Kylie Mayzes, who runs the fundraising committee, writes: ‘How amazing it is to have something for my daughter’s future that fills me with hope and not fear, thanks to you and Kerry.’
OPENING UP THE LIVES OF YOUNG PEOPLE AND MAKING A REAL DIFFERENCE
IT MAY be in its infancy, but Chaos Support has already made a significant difference to young people’s lives.
The organisation helps to run the coffee kiosk at Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court.
Lewis Jupe, 20, who has got his first job working at the cafe, says: ‘I like it all really.
‘It’s opened up my life and given me something to do.’
Rose Stone, from Denvilles, brings along her daughter Hayley, 21, who has a learning disability, to the centre.
She says: ‘It’s taken a big weight off my shoulders as a parent.
‘It’s opened doors for us that weren’t there before.
‘There’s nowhere else for them to go and there’s nothing else round here like this.
‘It gives her independence and it gives her choice.
‘She’s happy and she’s safe.
‘She loves to do artwork and she’s quite creative.’
And she was not short on praise for Anita and Kerry.
‘They are angels,’ adds Rose.
‘They have had the courage to go on and do this.
Every parent wants to do something like this – and they have actually done it. It’s amazing.’
For more information on Chaos Support, visit chaossupport.co.uk, call (023) 9247 2061 or email firstname.lastname@example.org