Sheffield Mencap and Gateway marks 70 years of supporting people with learning difficulties and autism

The scene is Sheffield in 1951. Children with learning disabilities are not automatically entitled to an education and there is little in the way of services for them to attend.

A group of parents, who want a better life for their children, meet with the intention of changing that. And from that meeting, Sheffield Mencap and Gateway is founded.

Seventy years on, the ethos of the charity remains the same; that all people with a learning disability and their carers feel valued and respected and that everyone is supported to reach their full potential and live the life that they choose.

Based at Norfolk Lodge in the city, the charity supports more than 500 children and adults with learning disabilities and autism as well as their families and carers.

Since it reached its seven decade milestone last year, the organisation has been conveying what it does and the impact it has through its 70 stories project. Running from last April until next month, the project has seen the charity collect and share 70 stories from members, carers, volunteers and staff, celebrating the voices of the learning disability community. 

Jonathan Raimondi, Gateway Manager, Volunteering and Placement Co-ordinator, has been conducting interviews for the project. “Some of the people who still come were actually there on its first night open which is just amazing,” he says.

“Because we have got such a rich history and there are still families involved who have been coming forever, one of the obvious things to do for 70 years was 70 stories.”

Ten of those stories are featured in detail in a book, whilst the others are being shared across social media and the charity’s website.

“We wanted this to really tell the story of everything we’re all about; how the place feels, the difference it makes to people, and how it becomes a huge part of their lives,” says Jonathan.

“More than anything, we wanted to tell the stories of some of those people – our members and carers, the people who founded the place and who make it everything it is.

“Thousands upon thousands of people love and have loved this place and have felt it make a great difference in their lives.”

He is one of them. He has been involved in the charity for 15 years and has produced the ten stories book.

Joy Steer’s story is among those he tells.

Joy, 24, began attending the charity’s drama and art club for children as a six-year-old and now attends its college, social club, holiday group and fitness sessions.

“I am a drama queen,” she laughs, as she speaks of her enjoyment for performing arts, as well as cookery. 

Her friend Nic - Nicola Slowe - has similar interests, cooking and baking, and she once played Dorothy in a production of The Wizard of Oz.

She has been attending for 24 years, since turning 18, and talks of how the charity has helped her to become more independent and how she can now catch the tram and travel on her own.

“The whole place has such a buzz,” says Jonathan “We take a person-centered approach. Everything is about giving the people who come here choices and confidence and independence and power that they might not have had previously.

“There’s also a good dose of Sheffield and Yorkshire in there as well - telling people to make their own cup of tea, pushing people to do stuff they may always have believed they couldn’t do. 

“I think when people see that you believe in them and then they do achieve things, it becomes addictive. They feel proud and give more things a go. For the staff, there’s stuff everyday to feel incredibly proud of and it’s addictive for us too. It’s somewhere that’s an incredible joy to come to work to in the morning.”