To truly understand Norwood, you have to see what it does first hand, as it is only then that you realise how all encompassing the organisation is and how many people benefit from its existence.

A week at Norwood is never the same and one would really need a month to visit the numerous centres, residential properties, educational schemes and nurseries to get a full picture of what goes on every day. Hopefully, this will give you a taste.

Report by Brigit Grant, Deborah Cicurel, Louisa Shulman, Jennifer Glyn, Fiona Leckerman and Debra Barnes

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Monday 9.15am

Simone is getting ready to go swimming. She has already had breakfast, mopped her living-room floor and loaded the washing machine. While these sound like mundane domestic tasks to the rest of us, to Simone they are a measure of her independence.

Simone is severely autistic and this is evident in her speech and responses, yet she is able to give me a tour of her spacious apartment and talk about the paintings on her wall. She has a favourite. “This was painted by my father, but he isn’t here anymore,” she says, standing in front of a vivid oil landscape of the countryside. “He painted all of it – the little donkey, the lady…”

Susan Jones stands in the doorway smiling. Calm and softy-spoken she is the sort of woman you want to spend time with and the residents clearly feel it as they all want her attention.

Susan is the manager at one of Norwood’s supported living properties, with seven two-bedroom flats. The other apartments are occupied by people with autism of varying degrees and the ground floor flats have been adapted for those with additional physical disabilities. But the key point about all the flats is that they are homes for those who wanted to live independent lives and now can.

Simone heading off to a pool is a case-in-point, for on any day of the week the residents are all up to something. Some go to St Joseph’s College in Hendon which is run by Barnet Council and there they can learn cooking, computer skills and music. “There are no limits to what they can do,” says Susan who has worked for Norwood for eight years and is acutely aware of the transformations that take place in the residents over time.

Simone has learnt to make Spaghetti Bolognese – “It’s my favourite meal” she reveals and shows me her recipe book which has stage by stage images and simple instructions. “I can make it all.”

“If you expose people to things they will grow and learn, just as we do when we are shown complex things,” says Susan. “A resident in her mid-50s who lived here had not so much as picked up a cup when she lived at home because her mother did everything for her. But when she went home for a visit while living here she was peeling potatoes for the Shabbat meal and sweeping leaves in the garden at her own initiative. Her mother couldn’t believe it.”

And then Rachel arrives. “Did you sign in?” asks the petite woman in jeans. “You have to sign in when you arrive and again when you leave.” Rachel is also autistic, but she has become the building’s resident health and safety expert, having mastered all the rules and regulations and is now most particular about turning off lights, shutting doors and setting the washing machine. Rachel tells me that she works at Brent Cross. “Volunteering at Mobility World,” confirms Susan. Rachel enjoys the work and her mother, Linda is a forward-thinking parent who has encouraged her daughter every step of the way.

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Norwood staff with Simone in shades (centre), Jason the artist (left) and (right) Nicky the drummer

“Autistic people just want to be part of the real world”

“Entrusting their adult child to someone else’s care can be as hard for parents as it is for the parent of a young child,” Susan explains. “But we don’t appreciate the human element inside autistic people who want to be part of the real world. They don’t want to be forced to go to special places created just for them, they want to go where we go. As one of the residents once told me ‘ I want to go where you go on holiday.’”

And with Norwood they do. Simone has the photos to prove it and shows me a selection taken during a holiday in Portugal with other residents. Suntanned and smiling, they are sat around the pool in shades. Even those with more complicated disabilities were part of the adventure among them a young woman with partial sight and no mobility, yet she is pictured zip-lining in her wheelchair at an outward bound centre. “Imagine how that felt for her with the wind in her hair,” says Susan. Nothing and nowhere is off limits to the residents who, when they aren’t doing art therapy on Fridays or swimming on Mondays, are at the pub on band night, or at the zoo or inside the London Eye.

“We go schlepping to Edgware, too,” says Rachel and Simone nods in agreement. Then Nicky and Jason arrive. Nicky is a keen drummer and takes lessons at St Joseph’s while Jason is an artist and has paintings on canvass to show me. He doesn’t speak, but Susan says he understands everything. He is a handsome man and also a deeply-religious one who attends Shabbat services at the local Masorti synagogue. “They have been wonderful there and let him hold the Torah on his lap,” says Susan who has watched Jason develop skills that enable him to now know how to dress for the weather. On Monday, he is in shorts, but he always wears a suit for synagogue. Simone’s apartment has got increasingly crowded as other staff members, Dahalia, Alex and Sajida have joined us. They have been on the go since 8am which is when they prompt those residents who are awake to start personal care. “They do it themselves and we are only on hand to help,” says Susan. “And they want to do it for themselves, as this is what independent living allows them to do.” Simone has put on lipstick and a flowery top ahead of her departure. “I’m going swimming with Sajida,” she says. “We are leaving soon.” “Don’t forget to sign out,” says Rachel – but I believe she was talking to me.

Tuesday 9am

Drugsline Steven Mervish on the far left

Drugsline Steven Mervish on the far left

Steven Mervish, a therapist at Norwood Drugsline is entering a well-known Jewish school, where he will spend all day with the pupils teaching them about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and legal highs – or what they don’t know already.

For according to Mervish, who has spoken to more than 80,000 children across the country on the emotional, social and psychological consequences of drug abuse, even the knowledge of Year 6 classes is “unbelievable” – and the issue of drug addiction in the Jewish community gets more severe by the day.

“Drug use is growing at an enormous rate with Jewish kids,” he says. “We have a serious problem as students know a lot more than they should at their age.” Working with numerous Jewish families in which the effects of addiction have taken a serious toll, Mervish has seen the lives of parents, children and grandparents torn apart by substance abuse regardless of their religious status, financial circumstances or familial background.

But he also knows that Jewish families can tend to bury their heads in the sand and think that drugs “aren’t a Jewish problem” – which is where Norwood’s drug programme helps.

Whether through Mervish’s open-minded school talks or community awareness workshops, Norwood aims to help those suffering from alcohol or drug abuse by acknowledging that addiction really does happen – and that there is a way back from it.

Norwood Drugsline offers a weekly drop-in service every Thursday from 6.30pm – 8.30pm, where friendly, confidential support is available to people affected by drug abuse, alcohol, gambling or other addictions, as well as a telephone helpline which is live during the same hours.

“What young people don’t see is the people I see every day, who have mental health problems, can’t have children because their bodies don’t work anymore or can’t keep relationships or a job, because they smoked so much cannabis when they were younger,” says Mervish. “These people started on drugs when they were at Jewish schools, at age 13 to 14. It happens in our community, too.”

But worst of all, he believes many children seem to have learnt these behaviours at home, rather than from their own age group. “This is the type of mentality we’re up against,” he says. “I did a workshop at a school, and one father stood up and said: ‘If my child wants to smoke a joint, then I’ll teach him how to roll it properly.’

“My generation gave our kids this problem,” he adds. “What chance have we got if the parents are doing drugs too?”

Wednesday 8am

Garry Urwin is at his desk catching up on emails and admin at Norwood HQ. It’s work that has to be done as a lot of the emails are from people looking for employment and as a job coach based at the Work Hub in Stanmore, it’s up to him to sort it . “We take a person-centred approach to employment support,” says Garry. “We get to know each client really well so we can work closely with them to find the right job. We also support them in all manner of situations that might arise in the workplace and teach them how to deal with it. Once they are fully independent we start to fade off, but are always available if they need us.”

As one of six job coaches at the Norwood Work Skills and Employment Service, Garry knows that having a job gives people a purpose in life, makes them feel valued and increases confidence. This is true of all adults, including those with learning disabilities, and the staff at Norwood hubs in Stanmore and Berkshire are committed to securing work for everyone who applies. All potential employees have a one-to-one assessment with a job coach, who finds out about their interests, current skills and previous experience. After this, they complete some exercises to assess their literacy, numeracy, time keeping, travel and money skills.

By then, a clear picture will have emerged of the type of work they would be suited to and a four-hour taster session is arranged in the relevant field – ie a Norwood charity shop, the admin office or perhaps working in the garden at a residential home. After that the real job hunt starts. Ensuring that employers understand jobseekers’ needs is essential and they may even accompany them to an interview to give them confidence and understand difficultly phrased questions. Should the jobseeker be successful, Norwood follows through with on-the-job support which even extends to doing the job themselves for a day so they know what is required.

Josh is a valued employee of Morrisons

Josh is a valued employee of Morrisons

This is all before the person even starts work, but it explains how Norwood is able to broaden horizons for people who never imagined themselves in the work place.

One such person is Josh Kleinman, aged 22. He came to Norwood last year, after a period of unemployment. It was clear that he required a little extra support so Norwood gave him some work experience taster sessions and helped him with his job search and interviews. He swiftly landed a job at Morrisons in Borehamwood and is now progressing well. “The support we gave Josh increased his confidence,” says Garry. “When he started, he was quite reserved, but now he is very much a member of the Morrisons team and gets on brilliantly with everyone.”

Wednesday 9am

It’s Wednesday, but there is no such thing as a typical day for Debbie Mortonson, as her work for Norwood is so varied. Debbie used to help people with learning difficulties but, after 19 years with the charity, she is now providing social work support to children and families as part of Redbridge Family Support Team.

“Referrals come to us from a variety of sources – be it parents, schools, social services and young people themselves,” she explains. “We provide counselling and therapeutic sessions in three local schools and have expanded this to include group support, which extends to children in other schools in the local area when the need arises.”

The support and advice offered covers such issues as family breakdown, bereavement, disability and mental distress. “But working to promote the well-being of children is at the heart of our work” insists Debbie. “We aim to prevent and eliminate all forms of abuse to children and young people and perform a safeguarding role.”

Debbie Mortonson, Senior Social Worker at The Norwood Centre, Redbridge

Debbie Mortonson, Senior Social Worker at The Norwood Centre, Redbridge

Phone messages and emails come first, but Debbie’s day really begins an hour later when she arrives at a local school to meet a boy who recently lost his grandfather to whom he was very close. The boy is having difficulty sleeping and concentrating in class and is meeting Debbie for the fourth time.

“He has started to talk about his feelings of loss,” she says. “During the last session, we made a memory box for him to fill with photos, mementoes, poems and any other things he associates with his grandfather so he will have something to remember him by. This will help him through the grieving process.”

Back in the office, Debbie receives a call from a mother of a girl who has problems at school and may have an undiagnosed condition. Debbie offers advice about how to proceed before moving to another case she is referring to the Child Protection and Assessment Team.

“I meet this child on a weekly basis to provide therapeutic support,” she says. “I’m concerned at the level of distress she is displaying during her sessions. She often arrives at school in dirty, ill-fitting clothes, having had no breakfast and, on cold days, has no coat. She says she can’t sleep at night due to disagreements between her parents.” Debbie has spoken with school staff and visited the family home. Experience tells her that the child is neglected and she is concerned for her emotional and physical welfare.

After lunch, there are case notes and reports to file, ahead of Debbie’s meeting with a 15-year-old boy who comes to Norwood once a week. He was referred to the family support team by his teacher, who was concerned about a change in his behaviour and difficulties he is experiencing at home. Debbie explains: “The boy lives with his mother and alcoholic father while caring for a learning disabled sister. He witnesses his father abusing his mother and is finding it hard to control his feelings.” Since meeting Debbie, the boy, who was having angry outbursts in school has calmed down.

Working with the young Redbridge children!

Working with the young Redbridge children!

“He has identified what he is feeling and we have worked together to find more appropriate ways to express his pain and frustration. We have focussed on devising strategies to help him cope with the tense situation at home. Today, I am going to suggest I contact his mum to discuss providing support in the home to enable him to take on fewer caring responsibilities for his sister.” This was Wednesday for Debbie Mortonson.

Thursday 1pm

It’s a sunny day on Stanmore high street and, inside Bernays Memorial Hall, Norwood’s Life Long Learning team are busy manning the stall at their open day. The team’s philosophy is that you’re never too old to learn something new, and events like this one are a great way to take the message out into the community.

The team runs a range of courses for adults with learning disabilities in London and in Berkshire. Today, they’ve bought along a brightly coloured scrapbook filled with pictures from previous courses, from Football Crazy to App Attack and Arts and Crafts.

“We want to show how much fun people have when they get involved,” explains Team Leader Trixie Harrison. “All our courses have to be fun and exciting, because that’s what creates a great atmosphere for learning. As well as discovering something new, learners pick up lots of skills they can use in everyday life. They might improve their reading or their numeracy, or get better at working in a group. One of our most popular courses is London Calling. Learners don’t just find out more about the city’s history, they also gain valuable budgeting, travel and social skills.”

The Life Learning Team spreading the word

The Life Learning Team spreading the word

Thursday 2pm

Buckets and Spades is hidden away in an otherwise unexceptional building on a suburban street, but inside tells a different story. From the moment you enter Norwood’s short stay residential home, there is an immediate feeling of homeliness. The service provides respite care for children up to the age of 18 with physical and learning disabilities that vary from moderate to severe. The facilities are extensive yet subtle, there are harnesses and equipment, but the atmosphere is warm and caring, Frozen is playing on a television, as one of the residents watches happily from a giant bean bag, while another is sitting eating a snack. On Thursday afternoon, these two girls are being looked after by a carer each. They are taken out in the interactive garden to play music on some giant drums and get fresh air.

Mother-figure Annette Shimoni at Buckets and Spades

Mother-figure Annette Shimoni at Buckets and Spades

There are bedrooms and fully equipped bathrooms, with specialist features to aid the children. Manager and mother figure Annette Shimoni says the most common stay is over a weekend. The children arrive on Friday afternoon and are settled in. They routinely have a Friday night meal with candles and challah and are then entertained with singing or a session in a fully functioning sensory room. On Saturday, they watch movies or do art-based activities. They have a themed board, which hangs in front of the large dining table. Every two weeks, they change subject – this week it’s handprints. The afternoon could be spent in the garden or with a walk to the park. On Sunday, they usually go out for a trip, maybe bowling or to Woburn Safari park.

“We take the initiative to ask what the children want and give them choices, so that they have different opportunities,” Annette explains, and points out that the respite is “not just about the individual child, it’s the service we provide for the family and the siblings who, for a few days, are able to do the things that they wouldn’t be able to do normally”.

Friday 11.30am

On a regular Friday morning, at 11.30am, every child at Norwood’s Kennedy Leigh Family Centre jumps out of their seat in excitement: it’s time to prepare for Shabbat.

Kennedy Leigh nursery children enjoying Shabbat

Kennedy Leigh nursery children enjoying Shabbat

The nursery children, aged between 18 months and four, positively beam as they sing Shabbat songs about everything from going to shul to tidying their rooms, re-enacting the lighting of the Shabbat candles and pretending to wolf down sizeable pieces of challah.

They hold up their fingers to imitate the Shabbat candles and show how many stars in the sky indicate that Shabbat has arrived. All the kids look equally engaged, with the Shabbat Mummy and Daddy particularly delighted to have been given this honour.

The nursery is all-inclusive, welcoming both Jewish and non-Jewish children with a range of abilities, and offering warm, loving surroundings. There is an adventure play area which looks like the stuff childhood dreams are made of, and it has specialist equipment for children with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs. There’s also a ball pit, sensory room and soft play room for the kids to enjoy, as well as all the activities put on for them.

While the majority of children do not have special needs, it is heartening to see the care and attention given to those who do and each has their own dedicated teaching assistant who guides them through the Shabbat preparation service.

The teaching assistants are patient and caring in their approach to the children and tell me they never force them to take part in activities, but let them do their own thing – supervised, of course – if they want to.

“It’s lovely,” one of them says. “The other children are so understanding. We have one autistic boy who often wanders off into our offices to play with the phones and the other children will gently lead him back into the nursery, holding his hand. They all play together beautifully, and help and support each other.”

One assistant tells me the Shabbat service is the highlight of their week. “They love the songs and the fact they can all sing together each week,” she says. “Although not every child is religious or even Jewish, it is nice that there is recognition of what Shabbat is and the children look forward to it.”

Sunday 2pm

Arriving at Norwood’s Unity club, I was greeted by the sound of a tropical rainforest complete with calling frogs and crickets and the patter of cascading rain. All this was interrupted by the words of gentle encouragement from the staff and volunteers on hand to ensure that the attending children were having the time of their lives during their two and half hour session.

The children were invited to make their own rainmaker toys, flowers and plants to decorate the tents, and then enter the rainforest for an exciting adventure courtesy of inclusive theatre company Funsense, which has been running similar activities all term. Over the past few weeks, the children have been able to play like pirates, explore life under the sea, follow a trail of dinosaur footprints and experience the circus. Next week is the last activity for the moment and they intend to “go out with a bang” through their Science Lab!

Relaxing in the audio-visual sensory room

Relaxing in the audio-visual sensory room

Antoine, who is eight and has global development delay (GDD), was fascinated by the rainmaker toy, whereas nine-year-old Joey only had one thing on his mind – “Jumping!” Joey, who has autism and GDD, discovered the trampoline in the purpose built sensory garden when the club moved to its new venue at the impressive Pears Special Resource Provision (PSRP) at JCoSS just weeks ago. After an hour jumping with Joey, support worker Samuel was feeling the strain in his knees, but luckily volunteers Angus and Dylan were on hand to take over trampoline duty.

These two 17-year-olds hope to study medicine and see helping at Unity as a great way to start working to help others. “Everyone benefits from the club,” said Angus “The parents get respite and the kids get a lot of attention and have fun.” Norwood support worker Samuel added: “It’s a great opportunity to let kids explore their own interests in a safe environment. They can be free, doing what they want to do without restrictions.”

This freedom is thanks to the impressive facilities at the PSRP, which has an audio-visual sensory room and ball pit, an outdoor space with specialised equipment such as the wheelchair accessible roundabout and the ground-level trampoline, which Joey enjoys so much. Nothing would be possible without the fantastic support workers and volunteers as Service Co-ordinator Nabs Tebata explains: “There is a waiting list of children who want to come along but we need more volunteers. The only criteria is to be at least 16 and have plenty of patience and enthusiasm.”

Charlotte Archer, 19, has been volunteering since 2012. “It’s good fun and very fulfilling. In fact, it is probably the best thing I have ever done. I help the children with painting, cooking and art. The children get attention that their parents don’t have time to give them at home and the activities are engaging and stimulating.”