Visiting the cinema, spending an evening at the theatre, going to see your favourite band – would you prefer to spend these moments on your own or with a pal?
It can be hard to find the perfect person to share an evening at the Wedgewood Rooms or the Guildhall, and the search can be even harder if you have a learning disability.
But Gig Buddies Portsmouth is making it easier than ever, as part of a growing trend to help people with a learning disability to enjoy their interests with a new found friend.
Set up by the learning disability charity Aldingbourne Trust, based in Chichester, since May 2017 Gig Buddies has been pairing people with and without a learning disability with similar tastes to enjoy Portsmouth’s live music and cultural events together.
And it’s not just for gig-goers – the group has seen new friends enjoy a variety of live shows, from wrestling matches to fighting robots.
One person who has benefited from the group is 24-year old Matthew Miles.
He says he was ‘miserable’ before he found Gig Buddies.
‘I had no friends – I had no social life’, says Matthew.
His parents thought there was ‘nothing out there for people with disabilities like Matthew’ that would help him meet new people.
Paul, Matthew’s father, says: ‘You wouldn’t believe what he was like a year ago, before we found Gig Buddies.
‘There’s been a real transformation.’
Now Matthew has someone to enjoy bowling, quiz nights, and trips to the cinema with – 24-year-old Iggie Lesinska, who admits to being unsure what to expect before the pair were introduced.
Iggie says: ‘A friend told me about the group, and I decided I wanted to spend more time with people with special needs, because I didn’t know anyone with special needs.
‘But mostly I wanted to make new friends and meet new people.
‘To be honest, I didn't think Mathew would be such a cool guy.
‘But he’s really cool.’
Iggie says a recent quiz night with a group from Gig Buddies was ‘mind-blowing’.
She says it showed her how many good friendships have been created by the project.
For Mike Harris, who coordinates the group’s 60 participants, Matthew’s story reflects the experience of many people with a learning disability.
‘We have one guy who does not have any friends and his family are so busy’, Mike says. ‘It means he only goes out once a week.
‘We have had a few people who are into football, but they couldn't attend matches because they didn’t have anyone to go with.
‘For a lot of people we talk to, the only people they see are those who are paid to care for them, or their family.’
Mike sees the problem as being exacerbated by government cuts, leaving only essential services for people like Matthew, who want friendship as well as support.
Mike adds: ‘Money has been stripped out of learning disability services and adult social care.
‘The government will pay for what they see as essentials like food and medical needs.
‘With budget cuts, these guys lose out, and they are the most vulnerable in society.’
Funding for the scheme is currently coming from Portsmouth City Council.
While people who become a gig buddy receive safeguarding training, Iggie is keen to stress that the scheme is not about being a volunteer carer.
She said: ‘People need to see the inclusive value of being a gig buddy.
‘You have to be open and patient and go with the right mind set – things might happen that you have not experienced before.
‘But it’s not about caring or looking after someone – it’s about making a friend.’
The work to pair the right people can’t be rushed, with Matthew waiting more than a year before meeting Iggie, who had met two other people through the project, but those pairings had not ‘clicked’.
It’s no surprise that the service has a long waiting list – with more than 60 people with learning disabilities waiting for the right gig buddy to join the scheme.
Mike says: ‘The amount of people who go to gigs is huge so there’s no real reason why there can’t be more support.
‘We don’t place big expectations on people – as a minimum, we want people to meet up once a month.
‘And gig buddies could get free tickets to shows – we get sent tickets, and Kings Theatre and Guildhall often provide heavily discounted and free tickets for gig buddies.’
‘I went bowling with Matthew and a group of gig buddies’, says Paul. ‘I was totally gobsmacked at how much fun everyone was having.
‘You stand there and think, “this is amazing”.’
Gig Buddies is open to anyone over the age of 18, and provides safeguarding training and an introduction to various learning disabilities.
The scheme runs regular group events and works closely with both MAKE, a social enterprise in Southsea, providing employment opportunities for people with a learning disability, and Kingsley’s nightclub in Osborne Road, Southsea, which hosts a regular inclusive club night.
Similar projects run in Brighton, Oxford, and Croydon.
Anyone interested in joining the Portsmouth scheme can contact Mike at Aldingbourne Trust by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, go to gigbuddiesportsmouth.org.uk.