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Setting up Challenge Group - Celia's story

On the 23rd September 2021, I, along with Wave for Change Co-Founder Bernice Hardie, will have the immense honour of receiving the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Langton Award for Community Service for the work we have done to set up Wave for Change. Times like these are always a humbling reminder of where we started, the road we walked and how far we have come.

When my daughter was little, I struggled to find a place where children with learning disabilities were able to interact with other children. I tried going to mainstream playgroups but found them too painful - the lack of understanding there around the behaviour traits of someone with a learning disability made it hard to integrate and it left me feeling more alone. I desperately hoped someone would start a group where my child would find acceptance. I tried speaking to my GP and health visitors for guidance, but no one knew of any groups for children like my daughter.

All parents of young children know what it feels like to be exhausted, but raising a child with additional needs in a society which, especially back then, was not inclusive of learning disabilities left me with little energy to seriously consider starting something on my own. But for two years, the idea stirred in the back of my mind, while mine and my daughter's feelings of isolation grew. But one day, after having a very vivid dream that I felt was from God, I decided I would set up the group. I reached out to some friends from church who said they would join a group if I started one - one woman who ran a playgroup and had a child with Down’s syndrome agreed to go as well. This gave me the boost I needed to take that first step.

I found a space and started spreading the word, contacting health visitors and local schools, putting up notices in GP surgeries, child development centres and libraries and hosting coffee mornings. When it came to enlisting helpers, I knew I wanted a team made up not of advice givers but of good listeners. A few friends filled this need and the first Challenge Group met in November 2009. It took a bit of time to get going, we only had one participant that first day, but by the second week, two or three people showed up. Gradually, more people heard about the group by word of mouth and more and more families joined us.

I was so grateful for the support of my friends at the start, and as the group grew, so did the volunteers - a group of three eldery women joined the team, serving hot drinks and cakes to the parents and carers, providing a warm, grandmotherly presence. It was through their involvement that I first noticed the impact that mixing with children of different abilities had on those without learning disabilities, who were not used to mixing. At first, they thought many of the children were being ‘naughty’, they didn’t realise that the issue lay with the child’s autism or learning disability. Being part of the Challenge Group really changed their perception.

As time went on, it became a group, not just for the children, but for the parents tool - I found physiotherapists and massage therapists who were willing to donate their time or work for a small fee and a local florist began donating flowers each week which brightened up the space. Over the years, I have seen the relationship between parents and carers and their children develop through their time at Challenge Group, and witnessed volunteers become more understanding and tolerant of those with special needs. All I wanted was to make people feel welcome and more positive at the end of the session than when they arrived, and to feel part of a support network.

It helped me immensely. I started the group for others, but I have gained so much from the experience - Wave helped me to cross a divide and meet people I never would have come into contact with otherwise. Wave has a heart of expectation - everyone’s got something to offer and everyone, regardless of ability, works together to tear down barriers to create something truly accepting. I still go to Challenge Group now, it’s one of the places where I feel completely relaxed. I’ve made lifelong friends through Wave and found so much mutual support and understanding.

Wave for Change is now embarking on a journey to help others set up similar spaces in their community. If you’re thinking about starting out on a similar journey, get in touch with us, you won't regret it.

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