Thank-you cards adorn the shelves and photographs of smiling children line the walls. Toys are in every corner.
Tucked away behind the Queen Alexandra Hospital at Cosham, the Elizabeth Foundation is a haven of help and support for children with hearing difficulties.
As founder Shirley Metherell takes me on a tour of the building, her husband, Dave, is outside planting a flower bed. The Elizabeth Foundation, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, really is a family affair.
It was born out of the couple’s struggle to find help and support when their fourth child, Elizabeth, was born profoundly deaf 32 years ago.
Since those small beginnings back in 1981, the charity has grown to provide a vital service to more than 600 children and their parents, plus many more who use its home learning programme.
Fran Inge, chief audiologist for the Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, says ‘The work that the Elizabeth Foundation does enables children with hearing difficulties to enter mainstream school.
‘With some of them you would never be able to tell they have hearing difficulties. It’s absolutely amazing.
‘It’s a unique centre. To be part of it is incredible.’
Shirley contracted the Rubella virus while pregnant with Elizabeth, which meant she was a high-risk baby. She recalls: ‘She was a bundle of beauty and the only thing they couldn’t check was hearing. I just lived for the joy that we’d given birth to this beautiful baby.
‘But it gradually dawned on me. Elizabeth was a perfect baby and nothing woke her up. She was so content. Things happened that made you think ‘‘she should be crying at that’’.’
Despite Shirley’s concerns, Elizabeth wasn’t diagnosed as deaf until she was two.
Shirley, 64, says: ‘Parents back then didn’t have the support. They just noticed when their baby didn’t turn to them when they went into the room.’
While researching deafness in babies, Shirley came across the John Tracy Centre in Los Angeles and wrote asking for advice.
She says: ‘They were my lifeline. My mantra to parents to this day is to listen to your gut feelings about your baby. They are usually right.’
Following the centre’s methods, she worked with Elizabeth at home and then flew out to America for four weeks. When they visited the John Tracy Centre, Elizabeth was already saying her first words. That’s when the daunting prospect of returning to the UK, where there was nothing similar, really hit home.
The Metherells knew of three other families who were going through the same experience, so set up what was meant to be a small self-help group in Portsmouth.
Today every baby is screened at birth and can be diagnosed by the time they are just four weeks old.
New technology means that parents no longer have to rely on looking for a reaction to sound from their baby. Diagnosing hearing loss early and fitting tiny hearing aids gives babies the opportunity to begin their listening experience almost from birth.
Once babies are diagnosed, they are referred to the Elizabeth Foundation.
It relies on funding from many different places including donations from the public, sponsors from local businesses and volunteers to help with the running of the centre.
· To find out more about the Elizabeth Foundation, go to elizabeth-foundation.org or phone (023) 9237 2735.
‘They lift so many burdens and worries’
Amanda Collinson knows only too well how much impact the Elizabeth Foundation can have when your child is diagnosed with hearing difficulties.
When the 37-year-old gave birth to her first child, Jacob, in May 2010, he did not respond to the initial hearing tests.
A week later, when the second test still showed a negative response, Jacob was referred to the audiology unit at the Queen Alexandra Hospital. It was here that he was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf at just seven weeks old.
Amanda ‘At that particular point our lives fell apart. Then we were introduced to Shirley Metherell from the Elizabeth Foundation. She didn’t say anything, she just came in and gave me a big hug.’
Since then Jacob has had cochlea implants fitted in both ears. These were switched on in August and he is already responding to sound. The foundation has given them a place to meet other families and share experiences as well as an environment where any question can be asked, regardless of how trivial.
Amanda, of Clanfield, says: ‘They lift so many burdens and take our worries from us at the door. It provides a place to make friends and Jacob has made many friends that I’m sure he will have for life. It’s more than just a facility, it’s a family.’
Meet the name behind the place
The Elizabeth after whom the foundation is named is now 32 and lives in Derby with her husband, David Corbett. Their first child, Jacob, is three months old.
Although Elizabeth and David are both profoundly deaf, Jacob is hearing. Elizabeth’s mum, Shirley Metherell, says ‘I’m so proud to watch Elizabeth talking to Jacob, and so pleased that I did listen to my gut feelings about Elizabeth all those years ago.
‘I’m really pleased that Elizabeth can talk because she’s talking to her baby. He will probably be bilingual as he will be brought up talking and signing. To see the family together makes me the proudest and happiest grandmother ever.’
WHAT THE FOUNDATION DOES
The Elizabeth Foundation has two centres, one in Portsmouth and one in Bradford, Yorkshire.
Children have the opportunity to play together and interact. With the help of specialist teachers they are encouraged to acquire good, clear spoken language which will help them to speak and listen through looking, touch and vibrations.
Children leave the centre with near age-appropriate listening and speaking skills. The centres also provide support and care for the family and teach them how best to interact with their child in a home environment.