STAL 3Since joining a new service four years ago, Clare Stubley’s life has taken off –including securing a job, taking up hobbies and achieving lifelong ambitions. Guy Page reports.

There is simply no stopping Clare Stubley. If she’s not waiting tables at a Costa coffee shop in Wimborne, you might spot her tilling the soil at a local market garden, or weaving a bespoke scarf to sell online. Weekends are no less actionpacked. There are places to go, friends to meet, her next foreign jaunt to plan.

Clare has Down’s syndrome and has needed care and support for 21 years. But, at 40 years of age, she is blossoming and slowly but surely making her way in the world and enjoying her freedom and independence, supported by a team of friends, family and care staff.

This new lease of life began four years ago, when Clare began attending the then newly-opened OWL (Outcomes with Learning Centre) Town Farm Workshops, run by independent care provider Regard, in Sixpenny Handley in Dorset. Since then, she has made the most of every opportunity that comes her way.

“Clare and I started at about the same time and she’s been a steady force throughout – always enthusiastic and ready to muck in with anything we do and eager to learn new skills,” says OWL’s service manager, Helen Ritson.
“It’s been a madly enjoyable four years, and we’ve had some great times and some amazing experiences. Clare has played a huge part in the success of the place and we’ve been on this journey together.”

The craft and enterprise centre offers tailor-made packages focused on supporting adults and young people with learning disabilities, mental health needs and acquired brain injury.

Its workshops include a pottery with its own kiln, 19 looms for weaving, and activities including arts and crafts, horticulture, sensory experiences, relaxation, music, IT, education, social skill development and lifelong-learning.
A large number of people who attend the workshops receive personal budgets or direct payments and live in supported living, residential care services or come from their own or family homes. The working day mimics a typical work environment with individuals ‘clocking in’ using a visual/photo board. Service users have also set up their own council, which has empowered them to make decisions concerning the running of the project.

“The ethos behind the project is to support choice, giving clients control of their lives and to create an environment where they can recognise and realise their potential,” says Ritson.

“It also gives service users the ability to mix and make new friends. It allows them to be like everyone else: to go out to work and access their community and not be isolated in one place.”

Clare, who lives in a small service run by Regard in Cranborne, embraced workshop life from day one and wasted no time learning how to weave. Soon, it became clear that she had a flare for making intricately-woven scarves and bags.

Now, Clare and her co-workers sell their products in the OWL shop and at local festivals, craft fairs and exhibitions. Items are labelled with the creator’s name and half the price goes directly to them, and half back to the workshops for materials.

Earlier this year, Regard set up an online shop on its website where service users sell their woven scarves, bags and cushions and kiln-fired, hand-thrown pots. Orders have already started to come in for bespoke pieces. Regard has also commissioned the crafters to make cushions and pots for its newly-opened services Park View in Weymouth and Connexions supported living service in West Cornwall.

Garden Gang

When she’s not at the loom, Clare is most likely to be out in the fresh air as part of OWL’s 11-strong ‘Garden Gang’. OWL took over a 5,000 sqm plot at Rushmore Park complete with orchard in 2011, and has since transformed the badly overgrown Victorian walled garden into a thriving market garden.

Supported by garden tutor Clare Gregory the team sell their produce on a mobile roadside stall and also supply the local pub and golf course with vegetables. Regard is also employing the gang to do garden work at their Northfields care home at Ringwood, Hampshire, and at its Regard for Children’s short break service for children and young people with learning and physical disabilities in Weymouth.

Meanwhile, fruit from the garden’s ancient apple trees was ‘magicked’ into a foaming hot toddy for this year’s wassailing event – a ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year. The celebration is one of a number of annual events that include a garden open day and the popular ‘Christmas Shopping Fair’ organised by OWL staff and service users.

Regular work

When she’s not up to her knees in muck, Clare can be found in Wimborne where she works at the town’s Costa coffee shop – dealing with customers, clearing tables and washing up – for two and a half days per week. The job began as a volunteer placement through Dorset County Council’s Stepping Stones scheme that helps people with a learning disability find and sustain paid work. She is supported by support staff from the home where she lives, who accompany her to and from her job.

“She settled in amazingly quickly and was soon part of the team,” said Costa manager Sarah Wellstead. “She is the most wonderful person to have around. She is always really lovely and makes us all laugh.

“Clare is so popular with our customers. She is a real asset. When they go away on holiday they’ll send her a postcard or bring her back a present. Sometimes she gets flowers.

“Clare takes everything in her stride and works so hard and is really dedicated in everything she does. We wouldn’t be without her.”

So much part of the family has she become, Wellstead now attends Clare’s annual review with social services.

Fulfilling ambitions

The ability to earn her own money also helped Clare fulfil her life-long ambition: to swim with dolphins. Along with her family she was able to visit Florida for a holiday that has given Clare enough happy memories to warm up the frostiest morning back in Dorset.

“I have always wanted to [swim with dolphins],” says Claire. “I have seen it on the television and it was just my dream. It was even better than I thought it would be. I’m now going to start saving up so I can go again!”

Another highlight of Clare’s life was being among a group of OWL trainees chosen to be official volunteers for the opening ceremony event in Weymouth Bay to mark the start of the 2012 Olympic sailing events. Along with nine other service users and four workshop staff, Clare joined more than 2,000 people to wade into the sea holding flaming torches as part of the ceremony.

“It was so amazing. I have never had such an experience. There were so many people and it was brilliant fun,” says Clare.

For Clare, one of the best things about being part of a community is the opportunity to make new friends. Her recent 40th birthday party provided the perfect opportunity to bring them all together to help celebrate her big day. With a guest list of almost 40 people, including family and friends from Costa and the Town Farm Workshops, she marked the event with a huge party at Sixpenny Handley Village Hall.

Gaining independence

Clare is among eight OWL attendees supported to gain more independence through jobs and volunteer positions across Dorset. Members work as paid gardeners, cleaners, speech and language co-trainers; one is working as a volunteer at a pre-school.

“Regular paid or volunteer work is the highlight of our service users’ time here,” adds Ritson. “We support and encourage them all we can. They love being out in the community, and getting recognition for the contribution they make.

“Having responsibly increases people’s independence and gets them used to a world of work and having other people rely on them. The chance to have a job of work is something we all aspire to, no less people with learning disabilities.”