As 2017 comes to an end and we start looking forward to 2018 I would like to share my story of the year and my journey with PALS. It's not really my story, though as it involves my wife, daughters, family, friends, trustees (which overlap family and friends), professionals and a host of caring supportive people.
And, above all, it involves my son.
A lovely, charming, happy boy of 14 who has autism and started 2017 out of education. It wasn't because he chose to not be in school, more that the school environment was simply too much for him to cope with.
He was going through the process of recovering from a stress related illness which affected his appetite and my wife and I were still desperately cramming him full of high energy food to keep him going. Whilst doing everything we could to reduce his anxiety levels. Yes, this meant lots of XBox and watching his favourite TV shows - Spongebob Squarepants being number 1.
Whilst this was going on we were 'taking on the system' getting him access to the medical help that he needed and going through the extremely long EHCP process (Education Health and Care Plan) that would be necessary to get him into a Special Needs school when he was ready. Sometimes it seemed like a battle, but we got loads of support along the way.
Gradually, as his health improved, we started to get him out of his bedroom. We went to the cinema during the day when often we were the only ones there. It was quite stressful before the show waiting to see if others arrived, and watching him shrink if a couple sat close to us.
He started playing football at an incredibly supportive 5-a-side session - Friday Football at Botley.
And he continued to join in when he could with the Hampshire disability cricket squad.
September came and, with success in the EHCP, he started a transition phase back into Baycroft School which has been successful. I asked him whether he had made any friends. "more importantly, Dad" he replied, "I haven't made any enemies". He has recently done a couple of whole days and, although tired, seems happy.
We attended our daughter's wedding in Croatia in September, and he managed the flight, car journeys, crowds, his dad's Father Of The Bride wedding speech, and enjoyed plunging in the pool as the evening wore on.
He is now looking forward to Christmas (his wish list runs to two pages and he is still asking me 'can I add item 2a, Dad?') and our New Year Challenge at the Gafirs New Year Dip - More on this later.
I'm sure that it's obvious, but I will state it anyway. The experiences that I have been through with my son have inspired PALS Society. The cumulative effects of forcing our autistic children to engage with mainstream school can be devastating and leave deep scars. These people deserve a better start to their lives, and if PALS Society can help even one of these regain their confidence and start their working life then we will have succeeded. But our ambitions are much higher than this!
It's no surprise that only 15% of people with autism are in employment, and I have blogged at length about this.
The year started with our first grant. An award of £5,000 from UnLtd which has been instrumental in getting us started. It paid for some kit to build our remote access server, and paid for me to travel and meet all of the important people who have contributed to this year. Including some really important access to some pro bono legal advice from Debevoise & Plimpton lawyers and to mentors from Deutsche Bank and the Social Investment Bank.
The early part of the year was spent with our founder trustees (Neil and Hannah) working on our application to be registered with the Charity Commission, which we successfully achieved on the 6th June.
We have had lots of successes after that too. In fact I am overwhelmed by the degree of support that we have received. On the grant front, we have received a grant from Cllr Hayre from Hampshire County Council, become the Saints Foundation charity of the year, won a community award from Fareham Borough Council, and are currently in the mix for a Bags of Help award from Tesco.
But the biggest gains this year have come from our computer upcycling work that we started as a means of piloting our activities. It's all very well talking about getting people with autism or learning difficulties using their talents in work, and providing safe spaces for them to do this. But does it work in practice?
My biggest thrill this year was watching a group of people with various learning styles work together - as a team - to build and photograph the construction of a test rig, without any instructions whatsoever, and get it to work. It was a truly awesome moment.
And I am certain that we will get many more such moments as we move towards our aims of providing a Computing Confidence service in Fareham.
Not only do we have an incredible bunch of superstars who are working on the upcycling, but we also have fantastic volunteers who are helping make all of this happen.
Next year is going to start with a big splash! My son and I are going for a New Year's Day swim in the Solent to raise some much needed funds for PALS Society and to continue to spread the word. It is time to get everyone talking about the incredible things that young people with autism or learning difficulties can do! The swim will take place at 12 noon at the GAFIRS lifeboat launch in Stokes Bay.
At the top of this page is a 'Donate' button - please add Gift Aid if you are a UK tax payer.
Every pound that we raise will go directly into supporting the young people to develop work-ready skills through our Computing Confidence and Surgeries. The maths is simple. The more we raise, the more surgeries we can put on. And the more young people we can help. So please give generously.
And if you are in the area and fancy a breath of fresh air, please come along and support us..
And for the rest of the year?
We will continue upcycling computers and providing a learning opportunity both for the young people that we are helping, and for us in terms of developing further our offering.
In February we plan to start the Computing Confidence sessions. Watch our website for more details. The events will be fun, entertaining, educational, and above all, will help people become more confidence dealing with IT.
At the same time we will launch our Surgeries where people can come along with IT problems and we will fix them. All at no cost - although donations will be very welcome.
In the Autumn we plan to open the doors to our training center and take on our first group of Traineeship or Placement students. We are also looking for a grant to start work on an exciting project to develop a new operating system designed for people who struggle with the complexity and confusion of modern computers.
What do we need in order to make all this happen? Of course we need money to get it all started.
But more importantly we need support so that we can go out to funders and say to them "these people believe that young people with autism or learning difficulties deserve a better chance in life. Will you?"
Please, please share this with your friends, family and work colleagues. It is so important that we raise awareness that there is a better way.
Through employment comes inclusion.
2017 - My Story