Running a social inclusion project for people with learning disabilities is the most rewarding job I've ever done, even if there is a constant battle for funding. So, what's so great about it?
First, people with learning disabilities are one of the most marginalised groups of people in society. Not least, there appears to be much confusion about the general population's understanding of the concept 'learning disability'. Mencap found 73% of people were unable to give an accurate example. A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities i.e. household tasks, managing money or socialising. It occurs when the brain is still developing and affects someone for their whole life.
Because of this, people often need support i.e. to understand information and interact with others. Much evidence also suggests that social isolation is a real issue for people with learning disabilities. This is hardly surprising as there is little support or opportunity for people to develop or maintain friendships. Furthermore, stigma still exists. Only 30% of people would feel comfortable sitting next to someone with a mild learning disability in the cinema.
People First Dorset has sought to address this in Dorset. For eight years we have run a highly successful social inclusion project for adults with learning disabilities, supporting over 1,200 people to make and meet friends. The 'Friendship Club' is led and run by members, and organises simple activities most of us take for granted, like meeting friends in a pub or café, ten pin bowling or a bracing walk.
Today I'd like to share the story of two lovely people who connected through the Friendship Club, and how their friendship developed. It began in 2014 when we heard that John and Liz*, two of our older, more reserved members, would be alone at Christmas. They both regularly attended our events, but in different towns, so had not met.
First, we invited them to a free Christmas lunch for older isolated people in Dorchester. John got the bus from Sherborne and met Liz at the meal. They spoke, but only briefly. Soon after, we were donated a meal for two in a smart Dorchester restaurant. Everyone agreed, as did John and Liz, they should go and meet up again! I met them at the restaurant and once they were settled, left them to their meal.
It was a big success! During 2015 their friendship blossomed. I'd take Liz to Sherborne events, and John would catch the bus to Dorchester and meet Liz. By August, they decided to spend Christmas together. This was a huge step for them, so with others, we supported them to plan. John booked into a Dorchester hotel. We helped them work out a budget, choose where to eat, what presents to exchange etc. It was the first time in years John and Liz had a Christmas to look forward to. Both were very excited.
Unfortunately, a few days before Christmas, John caught a nasty cold. He was nervous about travelling when feeling ill, so they agreed it was best to reschedule it to Easter. Luckily we just had time to jump in and ensure both had suitable alternative plans over the Christmas period.
Even though this trip didn't work out, they both managed (with a little support) to cope with the last minute change of plan. They agree it has made them stronger and more resilient. Their friendship has continued to grow during 2016 and they say it's really made them so much happier having a significant friendship in their lives.
*The names of John and Liz have been changed.
HuffPost UK is running a fortnight-long focus around helping others this Christmas. Giving Back will shine a light on the organisations and individuals making a difference in their community, tackling issues such as loneliness, homelessness, food waste and financial struggle. We'd also love to hear your stories.
To blog for Giving Back, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To keep up to date with our features and find tips on how you can make a difference this Christmas, follow the hashtag #GivingBack.