'˜We're so happy to have found each other'
Finding '˜the one' you want to spend the rest of your life with is rarely easy.
There are the travails of online dating and plucking up the courage to ask someone on a date in real life.
But what if you have a learning disability and you are socially isolated?
For many years Mandie Rudman and Jason Elsey were in exactly that position.
Without knowing it they were both sitting at home, extremely lonely, without the confidence even to make friends, let alone lovers.
That was until they joined a charity called Stars in the Sky, in Fareham, set up for people with disabilities to enjoy the kind of fun, grown-up activities as everyone else.
Within a year Mandie, 43, and Jason, 40, had met dozens of new friends and, most importantly, fallen in love.
They are now very happily engaged.
Mandie, a cleaner of Desborough Close, Cosham, explains, ‘Before Stars, I didn’t really do anything. I’d go to work, perhaps go to the gym, and then go home. ‘I didn’t have a social life. Then one day I was watching television when a pice came on about Stars in the Sky. I thought, “Now that’s for me”.’
Jason’s experience was almost identical to Mandie’s, although he was more socially isolated.
He says: ‘There was nothing for disabled people to do at all.
‘I felt very lonely. Now we have stacks of friends from all over – Reading, Salisbury, Chichester.
‘We meet new friends all the time. Stars is a very special place for disabled people.’
The charity has more than 100 members, aged 18 and over, who enjoy going to around 10 events a month.
They can choose to go to restaurants, nightclubs, bowling nights, cinema and theatre trips or day trips to places like Butlins and Brighton.
It is an opportunity to do all the fun things most adults enjoy and take for granted, with chaperones on hand to ensure they are safe at all times.
There are now more than 100 members who can drop in and take part in different activities at the Kings Centre, Fareham.
And, as well as friendship, staff arrange chaperoned dates.
A few months after they joined Stars founder Nicole Hamerton had an inkling that Mandie and Jason might hit it off.
A date to Pizza Hut, with chaperones, was arranged and, in Jason’s words, they ‘just clicked’.
Mandie says: ‘I was very nervous, and when I’m nervous I talk too much, I don’t stop chatting. And that’s what happened!
‘We swapped numbers and for our next date we went to The Trafalgar pub’.
A year after meeting, Jason popped the question by getting down on one knee in his flat in Buckingham street, Buckland, and presenting Mandie with a beautiful ring.
‘I did wonder why he kept taking me into so many jewellery shops’ says Mandie. ‘It was very romantic’.
They are in no rush to tie the knot though.
Jason says: ‘We’re happy as we are. We both like our own space.’
Although they like cuddling up on the sofa to watch Stella or Call the Midwife together, they are rarely in.
Jason says: ‘We have some really good times with the group.
‘But it has also given us the confidence to do things by ourselves.
‘We’ve been to the Butlins 1980s weekend five times. It’s definitely one of our favourite places.’
Mandie and Jason are not the only happy couple to have met at Stars.
Romance has blossomed for lots of their friends, including for Nicole’s daughter Hollie.
Hollie was the reason she set up the charity 11 years ago.
Nicole says: ‘I wanted to give people like Hollie the kind of experiences we have every day, and take for granted.
‘We wanted to give them positive, fun experiences in a safe environment.’
For example, when they go out to nightclubs no one would know that staff members from Stars are dotted around the club, keeping a watchful eye on them all.
Nicole has run the charity with husband Jay and sister and brother-in-law Julie and Steve De-St-Aubin.
But they are moving on after funding was cut.
Petersfield charity Fitzroy are taking over and it will be run by Hayley Ostler, who has been a volunteer at Stars for seven years.
Nicole says: ‘I couldn’t have done it without Jay, Julie and Steve.
‘And I made it clear that Fitzroy had to take Hayley when they took over.
‘It will be sad to leave but we’ve had a happy ending.
‘Hollie has met her own Johnny Depp here – her boyfriend Ben Morgan. We are so happy for her.’
For Mandie and Jason, their only difficulty now is fitting in all their social events.
Mandie says: ‘A lot of the members look up to us and come to us for advice now.
‘We’re very happy to have found each other. If it wasn’t for the group I probably would not have met Jason.’
And Jason adds: ‘We’ve made our best friends here.’
To see a video go to portsmouth.co.uk.
Stars in the Sky, which is in The Kings Centre, West Street, Fareham, was set up by Nicole Hamerton 11 years ago.
She found that as soon as her daughter Hollie turned 18 there was nothing for her to do and she became socially isolated.
Stars in the Sky creates a vital and safe place for people with disabilities to look forward to finding love, learn how to develop safe friendships, go on dates, and have fun in the evenings and weekends.
Due to cuts in funding the charity is now being run by Fitzroy, from Petersfield.
Fitzroy has launched a £74,000 fundraising campaign called Love 4 Life, to keep the charity going and support more people through the service.
To make a donation go to fitzroy.org/love4life or to the justgiving.com page at bit.ly/1RIapbf.