THE school holidays can be a demanding time for any parent.
But for a parent of a child with multiple physical or learning difficulties it can be extremely challenging.
That’s where the Let Us Play Scheme comes into its own.
Buzzing with activity, the play scheme takes over St Francis School in Fareham for one week of the Easter break and two weeks during the summer.
All of the children who attend have profound and multiple physical or learning difficulties, which means that many of them need round-the-clock care.
For that week over Easter, the scheme provides a well-needed respite for many parents and carers.
Arriving at the centre, I am struck by just how big the scheme is.
Every room at the school has been transformed into some kind of interactive play area.
There are ball pools, dressing up boxes, bedouin tents, chill out areas, arts and crafts tables – the list goes on.
And the rooms all have happy, smiling children and teenagers in.
The place is busy, it feels alive.
Around 70 people are on the register to come to the scheme and they are all accompanied by a dedicated helper.
Today, around 28 people attended and around 40 carers. And this, I’m told, is a quiet day.
Games are being played, amateur dramatics are being practised, a large rainbow parachute is being waved about and somebody is wearing a plastic duck as a hat.
This week’s theme is ‘Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ and the week will finish with an actual tea party.
It’s mayhem, but judging by the huge smiles, it’s fun.
At the helm of the scheme and taking charge of the military-style operation of organising the play scheme is Ian Wilson.
It couldn’t be more fitting that Ian is actually in the military – Royal Navy to be precise.
Ian, 40, spends his annual leave at the scheme so that others can benefit from the respite it provides.
Ian is helped by wife Sharon, 43, and they know only too well the pressures of having a child with learning disabilities.
Their son, Joshua, 19, has autism and he has been coming to the play scheme since he was a small boy.
This year will be his last at the scheme, as it only takes children from three years old until they are 19.
About nine years ago Ian and Sharon, who are from Titchfield Common, became involved in the committee of running the group and last year Ian took over as chairman.
Ian says, ‘Having a child with autism can take a lot out of you. When Joshua was younger, it could be quite challenging. He did display some behavioural challenges to us. We were quite fortunate and went and did some really good courses which helped us to learn a lot about him.
‘He is actually a really chilled dude now and he sorts us out.’
The group is partially funded by two grants. Despite these grants, the scheme needs to raise more than £30,000 per year to keep going.
Money co,es from parents’ donations and fundraising. The price per day is kept to a low £10 to make it affordable to all.
‘For a parent of a child with disabilities it can be really difficult to let go of your children,’ said Ian. ‘You really have got to have trust in people.
‘We generally find a lot of parents won’t leave their children until they know the area they are going in to is completely safe, even more so than any other child and that’s quite understandable.
‘A lot of parents come to us and say that if LUPS wasn’t around then they wouldn’t be able to leave their children anywhere. This scheme means an awful lot for many parents.
‘A big part of what puts their minds at rest is that the whole committee are parents of children with disabilities. We’ve got that empathy and as parents ourselves we want the kids to get the best out of it too.
Not only does the scheme allow the parents to enjoy some time alone, but it allows them time to spend with their other children.
‘Quite often siblings can get the raw end of the deal. A child with disabilities can take up a lot of their parents’ time. This scheme allows parents to spend time with their other children as well as doing things that they want to do.’
Ian and Sharon’s daughter Fran is now 20 and she still helps out at the group.
She says, ‘It’s good from a sibling’s point of view to get a break. When I was a bit younger I wanted to spend a bit of time with mum and dad on my own and this scheme allows that.
‘Now I volunteer here as I wanted to give something back to say thank you.’
MUM Heidi Hazel has been bringing her son to LUPS for the last eight years.
Busy Heidi juggles caring for her son, Joseph, and working part-time in an office.
She says that the group is a life-saver and that it is one of the only places that she trusts enough to leave her son.
Joseph has multiple disabilities including cerebral palsy and needs to be fed through a tube.
Heidi, 42, from Warsash, says, ‘When Joseph first started going it was the only place that would tube feed him and the only place that I could trust his care with.
‘It’s such a fantastic group. It means so much to me that I organised a fundraising disco at Warsash Sailing Club two weeks ago and we raised a staggering £2,800.
‘I wanted to do something to give something back to them. I can’t help out on the days as I am either at work or taking a much-needed break, that’s why I decided to fundraise. If the group stops, there’s nothing really for us.
‘Joseph loves it. I can tell from his face that he is really happy when I drop him off and when I pick him up.
‘It’s a fabulous place. The staff are selfless and they give their time so that mums like me can take a break.
‘As a parent of a child with multiple disabilities, it’s lovely to know you are going to get that break.
‘It really means a lot.’
‘WORKING HERE IS SO MUCH FUN’
MANY of the staff at LUPS are young people who want to gain experience.
And LUPS are encouraging of young people to come and volunteer.
Play leader Sharon Wilson said: ‘We have a waiting list of people wanting to come in and help.
‘A lot of those people are young people and teenagers.
‘They tend to get a bad press, but working here, you see that it really is the minority that are the problem.
‘Traditionally when you think of a carer, you picture an older woman, but not here. We have some great lads.’
Jack Furlon, 17, from Lee-on-the-Solent, is currently studying bricklaying at Gosport College. He said: ‘This is the second time I have been to LUPS and it is fun. I got involved because I just wanted to help kids with disabilities.’
Callum Wallace, 18, from Paulsgrove, is studying aerospace engineering at Fareham College. He said: ‘I wanted to get experience. My sister worked at a special needs school and I thought that it was a great opportunity. I heard about LUPS through a friend who also helps here. I enjoy seeing the children smile, it’s just awesome.
‘Most people on school holidays are just sat at home, but I would rather do this. It is much more rewarding’
Tom Richardson, 22, from Gosport, plans to go to university in September to study sport and social sciences.
He said: ‘I want to go into coaching and would especially like to go into Paralympic coaching but I did not have any experience of working with disabled people. This is a great opportunity for me to get involved with disabled people and really learn more about working with disabilities.’
Some of the more senior staff have been around a long time.
Clarrie Payne, 28, from Locks Heath, started as a volunteer at the play scheme when she was just 14 years old.
She said: ‘It is so much fun. I wouldn’t change anything about LUPS.’
LUPS has come a long way since its small beginnings in 1986.
Originally founded by Wendy Rees, whose daughter has special needs, it started out when parents were asked to help out over the summer break.
It began as a small scheme operating for a few days during the summer holidays and has grown into a play scheme with approximately 70 children on the register.
As Wendy’s daughter is now 27, she no longer volunteers at the group, although she regularly calls in to check up on its progress.
Her other daughter, Vicky Ashton, is still a play leader, working every Easter and summer holiday.
Vicky, 37, from Portchester, has helped at the group since she was 14 years old and says the group is really special to her.
She says, ‘When it first started, there was a need for a group like this as at the time there was nothing else around.
‘The first time my mum was driving the minibus for a really small group of children.
‘Over the years it has grown bigger and bigger and bigger.
‘What is lovely is most of the children start when they are just three years old and they stay with us all the way through until they are 19.
‘It is nice to watch them grow. It’s almost like a family.’
GET IN TOUCH
Go to lups.co.uk for more information.
Call 07542120355 or email firstname.lastname@example.org