Three and a half years ago Christian and I became Gig Buddies. A bit like a blind date, we were matched as people who lived close together and shared a passion for music.
We both joined Gig Buddies which is run by a Sussex-based disability charity called Stay up Late for similar and different reasons. The project matches adults with learning disabilities who are socially isolated to a volunteer to attend gigs and cultural events. In 2015, the project received over £200,000 of National Lottery funding to provide a buddying service to bring people together and build stronger social connections.
With both Autism and Down's syndrome in my family and working within the sector myself - I wanted to be part of something that changes small things that often have the biggest impact on people's lives. Christian who has mild autism and learning disabilities often felt socially isolated and wanted to get out more and meet new people.
Christian rarely socialised with people outside of his own family before Gig Buddies. This is generally common for adults with learning disabilities - they can become socially isolated because of the barriers to meeting people. Often their main interactions are just with paid staff. Although Christian went to concerts with his family, he wanted to experience going with someone outside of his usual circle.
When Christian and I were matched up, I was nervous as I wanted it to be a genuine connection. Christian felt the same which was great. In fact I think the first time we met, I was on trial...luckily I passed!
Gig Buddies has allowed us to experience so many great things. Gregory Porter's concert has to be one of our favourites - his beautiful, smooth, rich voice... but then again Kylie Minogue was amazing as that was our first gig together. We were crazily charged up and had even considered wearing our gold hot pants (but resisted). As Christian says, 'I've seen her 7 or 8 times now!'
I introduced Christian to volunteering so we did this together at a local festival, which was awesome. Christian has always wanted to be involved in one and being a marshal was an opportunity to interact with the community. But we still have so much we want to do!
I've been lucky enough to share this experience with Christian. If we think about how important and nourishing our friendships are, it's hard to imagine life without that. We need more projects like Gig Buddies that create and celebrate real inclusion.
Can you imagine living without real friendships? My life wouldn't be the same.
I know people sometimes feel nervous when trying to build new relationships but Gig Buddies make this easier. It fits both our lifestyles - whether concerts, comedy, having a cuppa in a café or a drink at the pub. It just works. It's a simple thing we can all do to create a huge change for so many people.
Thanks to Gig Buddies, Christian feels more confident. My teenage kids and partner have hung out with Christian. My daughter, Molly, and I went to a comedy show with Christian - I want my kids to have a real sense of natural inclusion. I feel passionate about this and believe that this starts at home. It isn't something you just do at work but it's how you live your life.
Talking about his experiences, Christian says, 'Gig Buddies has made me a stronger and confident person. Before meeting Jo, I couldn't be around so many people - she's always encouraging me to get out there. I've even got to know Jo's friends and I'm comfortable talking to them without her there.'
It's so lovely to see how his network of relationships have opened up. We all want to belong and feel connected and valued. Gig Buddies creates a space for this to happen naturally.
Talking about Gig Buddies, it's nice to hear Christian say, 'Gig Buddies have given us this opportunity- we need more projects like this. They have saved my life and changed it for the better. I have got the best Gig Buddy out of it...friends for life.'
I love that Christian is in my life and I am a part of an amazing project that holds values I hold. Our worlds have opened up together. Being a Gig Buddy makes sure that Christian is making new friends and I am doing something inspiring (instead of just getting lost in family and work life).
Christian introduced me to the beautiful tones of Gregory Porter and I introduced him to the world of volunteering. We both bring things to the table - that's what friends do. I've gained a life-long friend.
If you'd like to volunteer to become a Gig Buddy or know someone who could benefit please visit, http://www.gigbuddies.org.uk/