A charity that was initially formed to provide a much-needed lifeline to people with learning disabilities is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary - a landmark that speaks volumes for the work that it continues to do.
In 1989 the West Suffolk Befriending Scheme was born thanks to the efforts of its founder and current chief executive Shirley Moore.
At that time she came together with other like-minded people in Sudbury to find a solution to what they saw as ‘a real lack of leisure opportunities for people with learning disabilities.’
For seven years links were gradually built up between befrienders and individuals with learning disabilities who were erstwhile scarcely, if at all, catered for.
Shirley secured some funding, which then ran out and resulted in her working for free for a year as she found alternative funding to keep it going.
This was achieved and the one-to-one befriending grew to cover Bury St Edmunds as well as Sudbury, until on Friday, September 13, 1996 it took a major step forward when its first ever drop-in centre opened at the Burton Centre in Haverhill, with Shirley at the helm.
The befriending aspect of the charity’s work has also been running side by side with the Haverhill drop-in centre since 1996.
It came as a Godsend to a section of society who were, she said, often ‘sidelined’ because their disability did not qualify them for what was already on offer.
“For this group of people it worked really well because they were not eligible for day services so they couldn’t go to the resource unit,” added Shirley, “so in the absence of anything like that the day centre was a real life saver.
“Haverhill was our pilot and it was as a result of that we thought ‘gosh’ this has worked so well and I had someone help me with a European funding bid which enabled me to open drop-in groups all over Suffolk.”
Following the three-years of EU funding that was awarded in 2002 more centres began to open and they are now running in not just Haverhill but also Bury, Sudbury, Felixstowe, Stowmarket, Ipswich and Lowestoft.
Haverhill also now has a Tuesday night group (BC2) which meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month
The charity has evolved since 1989 to become the Suffolk Befriending Scheme and following another more recent re-branding, The Befriending Scheme - the name it carries today.
Shirley added: “I am chuffed to bits we have got to 25 years and we are still here.
“I think there’s an absolute need for what we do. I don’t think there are any other services quite like ours.
“We are not a resource unit and I don’t know of any other befriending schemes like ours- I know there are a few for the elderly, but not that look at our particular client group.”
Volunteers are an integral part of the charity and its future, a factor Shirley appreciates.
She said: “We have maintained quite a high level of volunteers and I think that’s because we try really hard to support them because we know they are giving up their time.
“We have got about 300 volunteers and without them we couldn’t really survive at all.”
Last Friday (March 14) members, volunteers and staff both past and present came together at the charity’s Haverhill Hub - which meets every Friday at the Chalkstone Community Centre - as part of the 25 years anniversary celebrations.
One of the volunteers at the group was 70-year-old Anne Jones, from Woodcock Close in Haverhill.
She has now completed 25 years as one of the charity’s befrienders, a role she continues to enjoy as much today as when she first started.
She regularly meets up with Linda Power, a member of the charity and someone she has actually been befriending for longer than it has been formed thanks to a connection that pre-dates its existence..
Anne, a widow who has two children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, said: “She (Linda) is quite active and does a lot of things but I can’t do as much now, but I ring her up and ask her if she wants to meet up for a coffee.
“I see her at least once a week and she rings me up at night. She loves my children and my grandchildren.
“Every Saturday we used to go shopping together and have lunch, but we don’t do it as much now.
“I’ve got a lot of enjoyment out of it. Whatever you put into it you get ten times as much back.
“I like to give help wherever I can to please someone else. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. It makes me feel useful.”