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Tuesday, 02 September 2014

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Carlisle woman's vital fund-raising in memory of her sister

Stephanie Wallace may not have been able to talk, but her bubbly personality was clear for all to see. Born with severe autism, it didn’t stop her loving life and her family ensured she made the most of her 19 years.

Ruth Wallace photo
Ruth Wallace with a photo of her sister Stephanie

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of her death, but for younger sister Ruth, now 24, it still seems like yesterday. In memory of Stephanie, she has signed up to take part in a daring bungee jump to help a cause that made a huge difference to her sister’s life.

A pupil at Carlisle’s James Rennie School, Stephanie attended the Able to Play scheme every summer. Based at the California Road school, the two-week summer holiday programme is open to disabled children from all over north Cumbria.

Filled with fun activities and day trips, the play scheme ensures children like Stephanie have a holiday they will never forget while at the same time providing much needed respite for their families who otherwise provide round-the-clock care.

Stephanie got so much from the play scheme that Ruth now gives up two weeks every summer to help out, ensuring other children can benefit like she did.

“She loved it. She couldn’t tell you that she did but you could just tell. When I’d play with her at nights afterwards she was just so happy,” remembers Ruth.

“I just love being involved. I can go and enjoy it and it brings back memories of the school when Stephanie was there. For me it’s just being part of it.”

Despite a five-year age gap and Stephanie’s disabilities, she and Ruth were the best of friends. They moved from Northumberland to Newfield Drive in Kingstown, Carlisle, with their parents Dent and Pauline and big brother Mark in 1989, when Ruth was just a baby.

Stephanie started as a pupil at James Rennie School and remained there all her life. Outside school she needed round-the-clock care so the family always worked as a team to ensure she received it. Growing up, Ruth loved playing with her sister and that never changed.

“Stephanie was energetic and bubbly. She had a real personality and was quite mischievous too – the teachers all loved her for it. She was hard work and needed a lot of help, but she was great. We were very close. We are a close family and I think that’s down to Stephanie. When you’ve got somebody who depends on you I think you all band together. You become close.

“She couldn’t talk but you could tell when she was happy,” says Ruth, of Carleton Grange.

Despite all her problems, Stephanie lived a full and happy life. So when she took ill suddenly at the age of just 19, it was a huge shock. The problem wasn’t her autism but a hiatus hernia – a problem with the stomach – that left her in intensive care for two weeks.

Ruth was just 14 when she died. “It was 10 years ago but somehow it just seems like yesterday. I still think about her every single day.”

The family yesterday marked the anniversary by visiting Stanwix Cemetery at the time she died and celebrating the huge impact Stephanie has had on their lives.

But it is not just once a year that they remember her. All year round the family support and raise money for the Able to Play scheme in her memory. Dad Dent is now the treasurer while Ruth has helped out at the play scheme since she was 16. Now working full time, she still takes a fortnight’s holiday from her job at Cumbrian Newspapers to be part of it.

Play scheme manager Lesley Sutherland has been involved for 22 years. She also teaches at James Rennie, where the play scheme is based, but said it is not just their children that take part. “It’s open to any children aged four to 19 with moderate, profound or severe learning difficulties in Carlisle and district. We get children from all over north Cumbria. About 120 take part in the play scheme at any one time.

“It’s a fun-packed two weeks – as much fun as we can possibly fit in! Each group goes out every second day – they go bowling, swimming, on seaside visits, farm visits – whatever they tell us they want to do. In school we have lots of activities on all week, then on the final day we have a children’s entertainer come in followed by a disco and party.”

Activities include performances from local dance groups, football sessions, trips out in a sports car or horse and carriage, art attack days, Mokyfit sessions, bellydancing and circus skills. An ice cream van also visits twice a week.

Now a deputy team leader, Ruth works voluntarily with a group of about 10 children on all kinds of these activities. But in order for it to survive, the play scheme has to raise about £24,000 a year to fund all the activities, minibuses and specialist staff.

The money comes from a combination of grants and fundraising. For the last few years they have had contributions from Children in Need, while Children’s Services also gives some funding support as it is the only play scheme for children with learning difficulties in the whole of north Cumbria. But it still largely relies on fundraising.

That is why Ruth has agreed to put her genuine fear of heights to the test when she takes part in a 175 ft bungee jump on June 30. She is among a group of volunteers who have agreed to jump from a crane in the car park of The Turf pub in return for sponsorship.

“I don’t like heights at all. But it’s for the play scheme so I’ll do it. I just really want to raise awareness and sponsorship so it can keep going. It relies on charity.

“I did an abseil off the Civic Centre with my dad a few years ago. I was at the top thinking I couldn’t do it and started crying when I was told to lean back. The bungee jump will be even higher. I just seem to agree to these things, then realise about the heights!

“But somehow I’ll manage to do it because it’s for the play scheme and always in memory of Stephanie. That’s what will get me through.”

Ruth’s family also support a community fun day that takes place every August Bank Holiday at their local pub, the Coach and Horses in Kingstown, in aid of the play scheme. It includes a football tournament with the trophy now named in memory of Stephanie.

Manager Lesley says that without events like this, so many children would miss out.

“When the play scheme is on, the children run in every morning with big smiles. At school they are constantly asking how long until play scheme. They don’t all attend James Rennie so it’s a chance for them to meet new friends and have new experiences. It’s just a really rewarding scheme. They all get so much from it,” she says.

“It’s also fantastic respite for the parents and other siblings. The six-week holiday is a long time if you’ve got a quite demanding child with special needs. Because of that, siblings can sometimes miss out. We have a lady who comes from Whitehaven. Her son comes to the play scheme while she and her daughter go off and do different things – swimming, cinema, shopping trips to Newcastle. That way she’s not missing out.”

Ruth hopes her fundraising will help keep the scheme alive and says she can’t imagine a summer without it. “I can see myself still being part of the play scheme in 30 years’ time. I love to see how happy the kids are every day. James Rennie is just a really special place for me.”

To find out more about the scheme or make a donation call Lesley on 01228 607559 or 07808 401407.

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