A new sensory room for local disabled children and their families
Little Miracles is a charity that helps families with children who have additional needs, disabilities and life-limiting conditions. ‘We have our main site in Peterborough, as well as 14 sites around the eastern region,’ explains CEO Michelle King. ‘We have sensory rooms at three of our sites and we’re just about to open a fourth. They’re really calming, and they also help children to interact with other people.’
Sensory rooms offer a range of specialised equipment that help children feel calmer and interact with others – everything from lighting effects and hydro pools to soft play areas, safe spaces and comfortable seating. They also offer ways to develop balance and motor skills, or physical therapies.
The idea of placing a sensory room in a shopping centre came out of discussions with the families of disabled children. ‘Families told us that one of the things they really struggled with was being able to go shopping,’ explains Michelle. ‘It’s too bright and busy, so children can get overstimulated, and children with autism can end up feeling overwhelmed. My own son, who’s 11, has Down syndrome, and because he’s in a wheelchair he ends up getting bashed by handbags at his head height.’
Queensgate Shopping Centre is one of Peterborough’s premier shopping destinations, with over 90 shops, 15 places to eat and 2300 parking spaces. In December 2017, the centre decided to hold a shopping event especially for disabled people. ‘They wanted to set up a mobile sensory room in an empty unit, just for a couple of hours,’ explains Michelle. ‘So they asked if they could borrow some equipment. We were happy to help, and we worked with Rhino UK to obtain some extra equipment.’
However, the two-hour slot was soon expanded. ‘We persuaded Queensgate to let us run the room throughout December and into January, to help families with special-needs children do some Christmas shopping,’ says Michelle. ‘The facility was free to use, so it wouldn’t bring us any funds. But we thought it would be a great way to raise awareness of the charity and the needs of the families who we work with.’
As soon as the sensory room opened its doors, it became a roaring success. ‘It was more popular than we ever could have imagined!’ says Michelle. ‘It was full all day, every day. We had young children and their parents who just wanted to sit down for a while. But we also had adults with learning disabilities who came in every day because they found it so relaxing, and a lot of older people from care homes who wanted a change from going shopping every day. People with dementia really enjoyed the sensory stimulation, and it got them interacting with other people too.’
Based on that success, and the benefits to both organisations, Little Miracles worked with Queensgate to secure a different unit on a longer timeframe. ‘They’re providing it for six months initially, and hopefully beyond,’ says Michelle. ‘They’re offering it for free, partly to support our work but also because they feel it will bring more disabled people into the shopping centre.’
Funding and support
Taylor Rose TTKW, one of East Anglia’s leading legal firms, is providing a much-needed financial boost of £10,000 to help with the costs of setting up and running the sensory room. Managing Director Adrian Jaggard originally introduced Little Miracles to the firm following a personal connection. ‘My brother-in-law has a child with learning difficulties, and he’d spoken very passionately about the support he’d received from Little Miracles,’ he recalls.
However, the decision to support Little Miracles throughout 2018 came from the whole business, not just its senior managers. ‘We support one charity per year,’ explains Adrian. ‘The selection is based on nominations from staff, which are shortlisted by our social and charity committee, and then we hold a free vote across everyone in the business. Once we’ve chosen a charity, we support them with both direct donations and our own efforts.’
Staff at Taylor Rose TTKW help out by holding activities such as bake sales and donating raffle prizes. The firm’s social and charity committee coordinate major activities such as a 27-mile charity walk on 21 July, a Charity Ball at Eton Furze Golf Club on 1 September and, are sponsoring a ‘Magic of the Musicals’ show at the Key Theatre on 1 September. ‘Every month we have a dress-down day, where staff donate £1 to wear casual clothes, which the firm matches,’ adds Adrian. ‘For my part, I was invited to see the charity’s work first-hand, and I’ve actually became a trustee. I’ve also been offering some ideas for improvement based on my management experience.’
For Adrian, taking a step behind the scenes has been an eye-opener. ‘What I’ve seen at Little Miracles has absolutely blown me away,’ he admits. ‘Every day, they deal with difficult situations in a practical, down-to-earth way. Again and again, families have told me how much they value that support. And yet it all starts with just sitting down, having a cup of tea and talking things over with other people in the same situation, or people who understand. The skills and support on offer are just incredible.’
Facilities mean freedom
It may not sound much if you don’t have a disability, but one of the most significant features of the new sensory room will be its toilet facilities. It will be fitted with a hoist, a changing bed and space on either side of the toilet to make it easy for carers to transfer disabled people from their wheelchairs. Local firm Leeton Electrical have volunteered to carry out the installation free of charge.
‘While Queensgate Shopping Centre does have disabled facilities, they don’t have hoists,’ explains Michelle. ‘Once wheelchair-dependent people weigh more than 20kg – which basically means when they’re older than four – carers aren’t allowed to lift them, because it’s not safe. That means either that they can’t have their continence aids changed, or they have to lie down on the floor to be changed, which is very undignified even for children, let alone adults. So proper facilities, with hoists and beds for changing, are a big plus for disabled people. Basically, our toilet really will be accessible for anyone.
‘It seems like a small thing, but it’s a big deal when you’re disabled, because it means you’re actually able to go out,’ Michelle points out. ‘It really shouldn’t be that way – toilets are a basic human right!’
The project is a great example of charities and businesses coming together for the greater good. ‘We’re very excited to have all four of these organisations working together to create the sensory room, which, we believe, is the first of its kind in a shopping centre,’ says Michelle. ‘Without Queensgate we wouldn’t have a room at all. Without Taylor Rose TTKW we wouldn’t have been able to afford the equipment. And without Leetons we wouldn’t have been able to install the toilet. Together, these things will make a real difference for disabled people in Peterborough.’
The Little Miracles sensory room is open now, while the hoisted toilet should be operational from mid-April, just after the Easter school holidays, when a formal opening is planned. You can find the Sensory Room on the ground floor near John Lewis in Queensgate Shopping Centre, Peterborough.
- Learn more about Little Miracles activities, events and volunteering at www.littlemiraclescharity.org.uk
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