I bumped into an old work colleague today that I haven’t seen in years, during which time we have both become mothers of two. It was wonderful to see her, albeit briefly; but seeing her also brought it home to me how much my life has changed since James came along.
‘What are you doing here?’ She asked me with a quizzical expression. She had noticed me, as well as a few other parents, driving out from behind the community Hall. ‘Whats behind there?’
‘Oh!’ I replied in surprise. ‘That’s Springboard’.
She looked at me blankly. ‘Its a special needs pre-school,’ I explained. ‘James has autism’.
Springboard Opportunity Group has become such a central part of my life that I sometimes forget that most people don’t even realise it exists. Tucked away behind the Princes community Hall in Clevedon, (North Somerset, UK, for any non locals!) you would never know it was there unless you were looking for it. And yet, for a small number of parents in North Somerset who have children with additional needs, it is a lifeline.
I was first told about Springboard by our health visitor, following James initial assessment which suggested his development was delayed. Faced with a likely wait of several months until a paediatrician appointment would be available, their weekly stay-and-play sessions were the first port of call for advice and support.
I was still coming to terms with the fact that my child was different; that there might be a problem. Taking the first step and getting in touch with Springboard was an emotional moment, as it signalled my acceptance that the labels of ‘additional needs’ or ‘disability’ might come to apply to James.
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at Springboard but I was immediately struck by how ‘normal’ it all seemed. The playroom and garden are delightful spaces which have been thoughtfully designed, but at first glance, I felt I could have been in any modern preschool. The major difference was that it felt calmer, due to there being a handful of children, rather than the usual twenty or so.
What I hadn’t truly appreciated was the range of needs that the children attending Springboard have. Some children have more minor speech and communication delays, or behavioural issues, and just need that extra bit of support in the pre school years; some, like James, have longer term difficulties like autism, for which early intervention can make a huge difference. Some of the children have more severe needs. Some children have a diagnosed condition, others don’t. Springboard caters for them all.
On our first visit James had no problem leaving my side and wandering off to explore, leaving me free to chat to Sue, one of the Springboard staff. As I described James and my concerns, I straight away realised I was talking to someone experienced who could relate to what I was saying. Who didn’t just say ‘he’s only young, he’ll be fine’, but nodded knowingly. Although part of me had still hoped for reassurance that there was nothing wrong with James after all, the relief I felt being in this sympathetic, understanding environment was hard to put into words.
From age three James started attending Springboard’s preschool sessions. With usually no more than six children in a session and 3-4 highly trained staff and volunteers, the level of support he receives there is second to none and the difference they have made to him is plain to see. It isn’t just James they support, however- it is me, Matt and even Sam. Springboard understand that having a child with additional needs has a profound effect on their families. From advice on claiming disability allowance, to applying for an educational statement, or for simply listening when I need to have a moan, I can always rely on the caring staff at Springboard.
Having depended on Springboard when other settings simply couldn’t offer James the level of support he needed, I often wonder at the fact that it is a charitable organisation. Springboard was set up in 1986 by a group of parents who felt there was no adequate provision locally for their children with additional needs. Although they are now subsidised by the local authority, ultimately Springboard could not exist without massive fundraising efforts and volunteers giving up their time. As such, I have tried to do my bit in various ways, most recently running the Bristol 10k with some of the Springboard staff and parents. As a small organisation making a real difference to the lives of local children, I can think of few worthier causes.
I feel emotional when I think that this month is James’ last at Springboard. He is about to embark on his next adventure: School! Chances are, he may not remember much about his time at Springboard, but I will always owe them a debt of gratitude both personally and on James’ behalf. They have made such an incredible difference to James’ early years and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.