Little Giants – Achieving Big Things For Shaftesbury Children With Special Needs

Each month, children with special needs from all over our area meet at Shaftesbury Youth Club for fun and activities. Alfred’s Keri Jones called in on the Little Giants and heard how these Saturday sessions are important for parents, too.

It was a bleak, grey and blustery Saturday morning when I walked up to the front door of the Shaftesbury Youth Centre on Coppice Street. As soon as I opened and walked through the door, I was immersed in a vibrant, colourful place of play, discovery and adventure.

Shaftesbury Youth Club

“The Shaftesbury Youth Club and Little Giants is our club for children with disabilities and special needs. We meet once a month on the second Saturday of the month,” said organiser Heather Sanger. She has been devoted to Shaftesbury Youth Club, and this more recent innovation, for decades. “About thirty years, on and off. My dad was the instigator of this building. He dug the first footings, so my family has been involved with it for around fifty years.”

Heather Sanger (centre) with the Little Giants Team

Heather explained that her daughter identified the need for Little Giants. “Roxanne worked for the Forum School that deals with children with autism. She found that there was nothing socially for children with special needs, so she decided to start up Little Giants.” That was nine years ago.

Like most valuable work, Little Giants is an unpaid labour of love. “I dread to think how many hours I put in with the Youth Club and Little Giants, but I enjoy it. And if we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t be here and the parents wouldn’t have anywhere to go,” Heather said.

I was promised a tour and Heather assured me that I would soon see how much the youngsters loved Little Giants. But first, I met some of the attendees’ mums and heard why these parents value the monthly events.

Twenty year old Sophie is the oldest regular attendee and she’s been coming to Little Giants since day one. “There is very little chance to socialise outside school or college when they are that old,” explained Sophie’s mum, Heather Richards.

“You can actually get a little bit isolated,” added Gabrielle Carl, Anna’s mum. She told me that the sessions were vital for sharing frustrations with friends facing the same challenges. Parents of children with special needs sometimes have to take on the system. “The reality is you always have to fight. You have to fight for the funding. You have to do it literally by yourself. You can’t sit back,” she said.

Gabrielle Carl (left) and Heather Richards

“A lot of the parents come for a chat with other parents, to compare notes and get advice,” Heather Sanger told me. It seems that Little Giants provides parents with an informal support structure, while their kids are playing.

“When they get older, they are fighting about who is funding the sessions, whether it is educational or adult services. You have to fight to get support or to get into the right school. It’s good to have an exchange with other parents,” Gabrielle said.

And with the extra demands placed on some of these parents’ time, it’s nice to have a few hours of down time. “It’s a case of catching up with other parents as well. We live quite a way away, so it is nice to meet friends because normally you don’t have time to and everybody is busy, working,” said Gabrielle.

I was surprised by the distances some of the mums and dads travel to attend Little Giants.  Gabrielle and Anna live 45 minutes away, in the Bovington area. “We have people from Bere Regis, Charlton Marshall and Wincanton. They come from afar because there’s nothing out there,” said Heather, who added that the project isn’t given financial support by official agencies. “We don’t get any funding. That all stopped with the youth services cuts. We have always wanted to be self-sufficient because that’s how we are as a group and as a family. We’ve raised money for everything.”

A core group of supporters fundraise, apply for grants and oversee the Little Giants sessions. Parents also play their part, so unlike many Shaftesbury community groups, Heather isn’t desperately appealing for new adult helpers. “We are okay for volunteers. We have a regular little band and if anybody wants to come along then they are more than welcome. I work at St Mary’s School and the girls there do an enrichment programme. They bring a half-dozen girls here each month.”

It was time for the tour. We headed towards the door leading to the main Youth Club hall. Heather said that Little Giants doesn’t schedule activities. “They come and they are free to do what they want. We have a trampoline up. We have arts and crafts and we have soft play. They have a free rein to do what they want to do. Then, in the summer, we have an outdoor area that is secure and means they can play outside.”

As Heather spoke with me, she was continually cuddle-bombed by children. First Nathan grabbed her, then Anna wanted attention and then Anna shoved her cuddly toy dog, Spot, into Heather’s arms. As Heather continued our walkaround, she smiled and gently brushed away an iPad screen thrust towards her face by an excited Nathan who wanted to share Postman Pat. “It happens quite often. It’s nice to be cuddled. He likes his hugs does Nathan,” Heather smiled. It seemed quite exhausting to be so in demand.

Throughout our chat there were few moments when Heather was not holding somebody in her arms. “This is my granddaughter. My daughter’s children come as well to mix with children like this because I think it is good for them,” said Heather.

Many of the parents had spoken excitedly about the sensory room. We passed the trampoline, which was being well-used in the middle of the main hall. A doorway in the left wall led to a darkened space, with black walls decorated with glimmering lights. When my eyes adjusted to the low light, I realised this small room was full of youngsters. There were spaces to crawl inside, include a large grotto covered with a fake fur throw.

“We’ve just built this. It’s a dark den,” said Heather. It was covered with soft material because the kids like the texture. I peered inside and saw how the hideaway was filled with small, twinkling lights. The room had a magical, enchanting feel, the sort that I remembered experiencing last time I visited Santa in a department store grotto.

Heather proudly showed me a column inside with strings of glistening, multi-coloured LED lights dangling down like vines. “My husband made this,” said Heather. “They are really expensive to buy. It has mirrored ceiling tiles at the top, so we drilled holes through it, threaded these lights through and slotted it into the ceiling. It’s like you are looking into space when you lie down here.”

Inside the sensory room

The ball pit is also interactive. As soon as I pressed a dot, the lights within the pit changed colour from blue, to green to red. As we chatted, Heather’s face was lit by alternating green and blue spots, gyrating around her face.

An installation resembling a large Fisher Price activity centre was placed on the opposite wall. It had bells and levers to pull and push to make noise. “It’s just all feel and touch,” explained Heather, who told me the tactile and noise-making tool cost a steep £600.

Lunchtime had arrived but this space was so popular, Heather had to start negotiating with some of the youngsters to entice them out of the den for snacks.

We walked across the hall to another room inside which children were stomping on virtual leaves, beamed onto this interactive floor from overhead projectors. “When they tread on it, it’s like rustling through the leaves,” said Heather.

At a flick of a switch, the scene changed to one resembling Bonfire Night. “They jump on it and the fireworks go off. There are other games where moles appear through the floor. If they tread on them they go back down the hole,” said Heather. “There’s sea and sand too and the sound effects are as if you’re paddling in the water. It’s very clever.”

Having fun on the interactive floor

Heather, her family and supporters have achieved amazing things, but they’re not prepared to stand still. She has a wish list, if funders can be found. “We would like a white sensory room. Everything would be white in it, as opposed to black. It’s a different sensory experience for children with autism. If we can get the council on board, we would like to put in a proper changing room with a bed, a hoist and changing facilities for both children and adults who need to be changed.”

Currently changes take place on the floor of the loo and Heather feels it is highly undignified. She believes it could be accessed by anyone in the town who needed to use the changing area. “We would like to give a facility for the town so they can use it as well, not just the Youth Club or Little Giants. They will have a Radar key and be able to access it all the time.”

I asked Heather how much this would cost. “You’d be looking at between £10,000 and £15,000,” she said. If you can contribute some or all of that money, Heather and her team would be grateful for your call.

And if your child has special needs and would enjoy Little Giants, Heather extends a warm welcome. “We don’t brag about what we do here, but it would be nice for the local community to know that there is something for children who have got different needs to other young people. We are here if they have a young child who would like to come. We have no age limit,” explained Heather.