Stephen Oryszczuk goes behind the scenes to discover the people and places that make our vibrant community tick. This week he’s at Norwood…Stephen Orys

The place:

You have to mean to find the Kennedy Leigh Family Centre. Down a drive, off a close, adjoining an avenue, abutting a road, it sits unobtrusively in a field, in the middle of a Hendon estate. Once found, it slowly reveals its tardis-like nature. “It’s a warren,” says a rabbit, before diving off down a hole.

Through the double-door entrance, Iris greets you with one of 72 sign-in books, divided according to designation, purpose and blood-type. Opposite reception is the refurbished cafe, run by Michael and a team of trainees, many of whom have used (or do use) the services. Delve deeper, past the Ball Pond, the Sensory Room and the Unity Cupboard, and you realise why they call this the Norwood mothership. “I worked here for seven years before I came up to reception,” says Julie. “It was only then that I realised how much else goes on.”

The team:

It’s less a team, more an army. The KLFC battalion comprises dozens of counsellors, social workers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, art therapists, Rebbes, educational psychologists, teachers, learning support assistants, nursery staff, caretakers, administrators, facilitators, catering staff and volunteers, the latter acting as the oil in the engine. “I don’t know what we’d do without them,” says my guide, the 23-year veteran Glo. What she means is they just don’t have the staff.

Norwood DITLO

Clockwise from top: Iris on reception; Daryl’s Rainbow Class; nutty ‘Glo’; the reception area; learning about women’s rights; the admin office. Inset: A volunteer with a very young Norwood service user

The day:

We start in Daryl’s Rainbow class, where volunteer Matthew is lying on the floor, amidst a spillage of snack-like food, conversing with a blonde boy lying beside him. This is all too much fun for a girl in pink, who jumps on them. Before long there’s a sing-song, where the kids learn how many men the grand old Duke of York had, where they were marched, and what old MacDonald had on his farm. The toot-tooting tractor is a particular favourite.

While the kids play, the mums go off to another room for a group session facilitated by Ruth, who also counts two decades’ service. Earlier in the day she ran something similar for mums of twins or triplets. “They wanted to talk about the news this week that there will soon be three-parent babies,” she says, referring to parliament’s approval of a process that prevents mitochondrial disease from occurring. “Some think this could help them, or could have helped them. It was a difficult discussion.”

In the nursery, Diane and the team are wrapping up after a raucous morning. I’m told there are four boys creating havoc. I ask if they go around as a gang. “No, thank God,” says a frazzled teacher organising a curriculum area. “If they did we’d need shields and armour.” It is half-term next week, so there’s lots of cleaning, sorting and organising going on, and the kids are being drafted in to help. It helps them learn responsibility, says Diane. And there’s less call for chimney-sweeping these days.

In the recently-revamped cafe, manager May has been giving 1:1 training to Laurie (barista skills), Natasha and Anita (till work). “The most difficult bit is money,” she says. “If a customer is owed 50p but there is no 50p in the till, it’s about learning that they can use two 20p and a 10p, or other combinations. Many struggle with that.”

Along one of the many corridors, South African educational psychologist Chantal sits writing a report ahead of a Feedback Meeting. She’s in the middle of telling me about her lovely view (“they put me in a cupboard for four years so the view was non-negotiable”) when a call comes in from a parent whose child seems to be regressing, forgetting family members’ names and such. Chantal recommends an urgent neuro-developmental assessment via the GP. Her team, she tells me, work with Jewish children in Jewish and non-Jewish schools, often observing a child “in context” (i.e. in school), assessing emotional, cognitive and educational needs. “Thankfully one of our team speaks and assesses in Yiddish, which is all many Orthodox children know,” explains Chantal. “She’s never allowed to retire.”

Down another corridor is Binoh, where teachers Melanie and Caren have girls learning about the suffragettes as part of their BTEC. I’ve just missed volunteer Irving’s photography lesson and the girls are now full of knowledge about the Edwardian era, including the popular hairstyles of the time (there’s talk of ‘clips’ and ‘bobbles’ and things I don’t understand). Next door Daniel, Steve and Michelle teach literacy and numeracy to three lads who, for one reason or another, struggled at mainstream school and are now finishing their studies here. They’ve just finished making an excellent advert for May and Michael’s cafe.

Front of house, a jewellery stand takes shape, selling bracelets and other sparkly things made and donated by service users at Norwood’s Ravenswood unit in Berkshire. Sat patiently preparing for her Drugsline service is Chavi, while Julie – fresh from training newcomer Sharonne on the I.T. systems – tells me her day has been spent “running from one part of the building to another, as usual”.

It’s soon time to go. Glo drives me back to the station and asks me about my day. Yet again, I’ve been bowled over by how well the community looks after those less able to look after themselves. In many areas, Norwood is trying to become more ‘corporate,’ which (for me) is a shame: no charity should ever aim to ape the cut-throat world of profit. But here, at ground level, down a drive, off a close, adjoining an avenue, abutting a road, in a field in the middle of a Hendon estate, there is an unbelievable sense of family and love. You can’t corporatise that.