Norwood’s Respite Centre provides parents with a welcome break. But, as Brigit Grant discovers, it’s all about the children…

Three-year-old Nisha joins in a one-to-one session at Teenie Tiny

Three-year-old Nisha joins in a one-to-one session at Teenie Tiny

You could hear Nisha laughing the moment she stepped through the door. Bright-eyed, with a head of brown curls, the three-year-old girl was clearly delighted to have arrived at Buckets and Spades HQ for three hours of play with other children and carers who were just as pleased to see her.

It was the day of the teachers’ strike, but at Norwood’s respite centre in London N3, the only concern for service manager Annette Shimoni was the welfare of the youngsters in her care.

She used to run her own food business,but as she puts it so admirably: “I got fed up with working for profit,” and so she started as a support worker at Norwood 17 years ago and never left.

Working with special-needs children requires an unprecedented level of dedication. It appears to come naturally to Annette and her staff, who look happier than most people do at work. The early-morning vibe at the property is one of focus and efficiency.

“Everything that happens here gets documented,” says Annette in an office filled with files. “We are looking after precious cargo and all the children that stay with us have dietary and medical requirements that have to be followed to the letter.

Annette Shimoni

Annette Shimoni

The training list for our staff is humongous and they are given the necessary information, skills, competence and confidence to offer a therapeutic environment to children with special needs.”

The teenagers who stayed last night are still asleep – “We’re giving them a lie-in,” says Annette – but later a tour around the building reveals six airy bedrooms with overhead sensors to monitor movement and special hoists over the beds for children who are not mobile.

“There are also specialist mattresses for visitors such as Hannah who likes to jump on the bed,” adds Annette just moments before Hannah, a teenager with autism, appears in the sitting-room to join Luke, who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair.

“I think we are going to go bowling,” announces Catherine Stone, a vivacious French woman who gave up freelance language teaching in 2005 to be an administrator at Norwood. “Now I do everything including driving the bus, which I will do today or cook lunch for everyone if an extra pair of hands is needed,” she says.

“It’s funny because I wanted to work at Norwood purely for geographical convenience, but I have grown to love the place and it’s impossible to imagine being anywhere else.”

Annette nods sagely at Catherine’s remark as it is a feeling her whole team share in spite of the difficulties they face looking after the older more challenging children who can lash out and be aggressive.

“All the children are assessed by the local authority to determine whether they are a risk to other children, but as far as the staff is concerned, we are taught to handle anything,” reveals Annette.

“But the children are all lovely and you are reminded each day how fortunate you are that you have been blessed with kids who do not face the same enormous

Ben Morrison gets to experience the sensation of bread-making with carer Stephanie

Ben Morrison gets to experience the sensation of bread-making with carer Stephanie

challenges.” The aforementioned teachers’ strike had made it necessary for the centre to change the day of the Teeny Tiny session to accommodate the needs of parents in a bind with other kids off school.

Arriving ahead of the rest, Nisha gets first dibs in the sensory room, where she can lie around on cushions and look at the glittering stars. Long before any of the children arrive, Priscilla Brobby, the statuesque manager of the twice-weekly group, was making sure toys and games were spotless and conveniently placed.

A former learning support assistant at Norwood’s nursery at the Kennedy Leigh Family Centre in Hendon, Priscilla was determined to make the Teeny Tiny group more than just a drop-in experience and has implemented an Early Stages learning programme. “Our sessions are structured in just the same way as they would be for more able-bodied children,” she says.

“It is all about perception and through activities, play and having snacks and lunch together we are providing the opportunity for development. “For some of our group, Teeny Tiny is also the only place where they have interaction with other children, not to mention adults.

We also have to reassure the parents of those with life-limiting conditions and complex health needs, as there is always anxiety when they bring them and leave them for the first time.” Sam Bladon knows that feeling only too well.

An injury during birth left her now 22-month-old daughter Evie with the life-limiting conditions Priscilla speaks of and as a result no two days are ever the same for the family. “Cerebral palsy is the blanket term they use but Evie is at the severe end of the scale.

All her muscles and limbs are affected and she is blind,” says Sam in the matter-of-fact tone born out of tragic experience. “We were thrown into a different world immediately and for an organised person such as myself having to live day to day is very hard.”

With their other children Alfie, six and Mia, four, to look after and an overwhelming number of hospital appointments to contend with, Sam, a former teacher, and her husband Lee welcomed any respite, but were uncertain any would be available for Evie. “Initially I couldn’t imagine her going anywhere,” says Sam. “I just failed to see how anyone could stimulate a baby who sleeps all the time.”

An assessment by Barnet and a visit from Priscilla led to a place at the Teeny Tiny group, which for Sam was all the more poignant as from the age of 13 she had been a volunteer for Unity, Norwood’s recreational service for children with disabilities.

“I was there with my brother every holiday and every Sunday,” she recalls, only too well aware of the tragic irony. But familiarity with the Jewish charity was reassuring and the feeling of safety and positivity was confirmed when her little girl, who barely responds to touch, was suddenly part of circle time for singing and joining the other little ones at the lunch table.

Beside Evie at the table sit 28-month-old Thomas and Ben on the laps of carers Stephanie and Louise. It is the special ‘one-to-one care’ at Teeny Tiny that convinced Helen Morrison, the mother of the identical twins, that this was the right place for them. “The staff are fantastically qualified,” says Helen, head teacher of Martin Primary School in East Finchley.

“I have friends who always kindly offer to have the boys, but they forget the enormity of the task as the boys have cerebral palsy and heart conditions, with Ben’s being the more extreme, and he is blind. Even with their very complex health issues I wanted them to engage with other children.”

Having spent the first three months of the boys’ lives between UCH, Great Ormond Street and St Thomas’s, the emotional response to her situation as a first-time mother hit Helen only much later and Sam Bladon admits there are days when she just cries. But for a few hours at Teeny Tiny, both mothers can rest easier, secure in the knowledge the “precious cargo” Annette speaks of are being looked after by people who genuinely care.

“Teeny Tiny is the only place where some children interact with others”

Home care is the newest project at Buckets and Spades and the team will now be able to go into children and young people’s private homes to provide a variety of care options tailored to meet an individual’s requirements.  Sessions lasting from a few hours to a full day can be booked. The core service is currently funded by Barnet but it can also be accessed via direct payments in Barnet and surrounding local-authority areas.

Overnight short breaks – Planned and emergency overnight stays are available at Buckets and Spades and can accommodate children and young people for single or multiple overnight stays. The service can be accessed by any local authority or via direct payments.

Day service (respite) – at Buckets and Spades is between 8am and 8pm for sessions of two to 12 hours. It is available every weekend, on bank holidays and every day during school holidays and Thursdays and Fridays during term time. This service can be accessed by any local authority or direct payments.

Teeny Tiny is a short-break service at Buckets and Spades for children aged 16 months to five years with complex health needs. Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10am–1pm, with lunch. This service is funded for and by Barnet.