YOUTH services across Nottinghamshire have been praised and used as a leading light for other authorities to follow by Ofsted inspectors.
The priority given to disabled youngsters, the quality of facilities and excellent staff support were all recognised during a tour across the county by lead inspector Tony Gallagher.
“Young disabled people don’t always get the same chances as their non-disabled peers but through the work we do, we can offer them some of these opportunities,” explained Coun Lynn Sykes, chairman of the early years and young people’s committee. “Through our support, disabled youngsters also learn to negotiate, share and be listened to, which is often not part of their lives.
“We also help develop their confidence in areas young people might not have taken part in before, like performing arts and adventure activities.”
During his visit, the inspector looked at three services for supporting people to have fun, learn and develop work skills. This is done through clubs, residential trips, Saturday and holiday clubs and a work-based programme for 16-19 year olds.
One such facility, the Folkhouse Young People’s Centre in Mansfield, is leaving its mark on the young people who use it.
Laura Hickman, of Kirkby, is an inspiring 20 year-old who has grown up dealing with the consequences of an invisible disability - Asperger’s Syndrome.
This is a condition on the autism spectrum which brings with it a world of problems and challenges caused by social constraints, the need for repetitive routines and communication difficulties.
Laura has struggled through her childhood, feeling isolated, different from her peers and lacking in confidence through other people’s inability to understand.
But since becoming part of the ‘Folkhouse family’ she has a sense of belonging.
“It is my second home and we all love it,” said Laura who attends sessions on Monday and Wednesday evenings as well as taking part in a Saturday gardening club. “Everybody understands and supports each other here and even though we all have different disabilities we all get on.”
The Folkhouse youth centre underwent a massive regeneration programme worth £6.5m and re-opened in June 2011 giving young people a place to be proud of and feel valued.
It is for young people aged 13-25 with various disabilities, physical impairments and deaf young people, with support from youth workers who have received additional training to meet their needs.
The resource is shared by all youngsters both mainstream and disabled but on separate floors.
Laura explains: “Nobody really knows what it is like to have a disability until they experience it themselves which is why we like to have our own club. We want to be with like-minded people as we are the minority the majority of the time.
“In the world we have to try and fit in but here we can be who we are. This is important and we deserve a place we can feel comfortable in. The people here really care and we trust them.”
Laura, like many youngsters with a disability, struggles to make friends at school, never experiencing the teenage sleepovers of other girls in her class, being invited to parties or having a partner to go to the prom with, but the Folkhouse has provided stars in a dark sky.
“I’ve had the best time of my life since coming to the Folkhouse,” added Laura whose mum brings her to the three sessions which cost £1 per session plus £5 annual membership. “I have made friends here that have developed into proper relationships, which I never had before.
“It has given me confidence and hope for the future and has led to so many things.”
A week’s holiday in France with her friends over the summer is something Laura is really excited about as it will give her the chance to explore independently, under the guidance of support workers, as well as care and help for her pals with physical disabilities who are also making the trip.
“I used to worry about a school day trip and now I am going to another country,” added Laura, who won a youth award in recognition for her efforts. “I like helping others and it makes me feel great when others ask for my help. I hope to get a care job in the future.”
Laura’s mum Tracey has complete confidence in the Folkhouse team and can’t praise them enough: “The staff here want to make a difference and go above and beyond and are 110 per cent committed.
“They help open up opportunities for the young people instead of setting them up to fail.
“It is a lifeline for all of us. No matter what mood she is in when we arrive, at the end of the session she feels great.”
Families interested in accessing the Folkhouse facilities should contact the NCC disability support team on 01623 626972.