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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Carlisle Mencap's new children's respite centre is 'dream come true'

It was Grace Little’s dying wish to thank the people who helped look after her disabled son.

Grace Little centre photo
Inside the new centre

Now her gift has formed the cornerstone of funding that has led to the opening of “a beautiful place” for some of the most vulnerable children in society.

When the Stanwix widow died in 2009, aged 94, she left a legacy in her will to a number of charities.

Among these was more than £200,000 to Carlisle Mencap in gratitude for the help she received with her son, Frank, who died before her.

This, say charity chiefs, was the “catalyst” that helped propel to reality their dream of a place where children could go for short breaks.

After whirlwind two years of further fundraising the state-of-the art centre on the edge of Carlisle is now providing activities for children.

Named after its benefactor, the Grace Little Centre will also shortly be able to allow children to stay in its residential wing.

The children staying can sleep over after a day of taking part in all the fun available, with an outdoor park, four en suite bedrooms, an activity wing with a sensory room, soft play, IT and arts and crafts all at the centre.

It is for young people with learning or physical disabilities, aged up to 18. Carlisle had not had a children’s respite centre since the closure of Orton Lea in 2007.

Numerous people have raised cash for the project and there were grants from Cumbria County Council.

Brian Scowcroft, who owns Carlisle’s Kingmoor Park, provided the land for the centre on the industrial estate.

Officials, parents and some of the children using the services gathered yesterday at a ceremony to officially mark the opening of the £750,000 centre.

Sheila Gregory, chief executive of Carlisle Mencap, said: “It is quite emotional. It is a dream come true.

“It’s only just over two years ago we launched the appeal for funds. Now that it’s done, it’s wonderful.”

She said she was surprised how quickly funds were raised, with people carrying out activities including long distance swims and parachute jumps to raise the cash.

The parents are said to be overjoyed by the centre. And the children themselves?

“They just love it,” said Sheila. “They’ve had a wonderful time in there.”

Sheila said she was “amazed” when hearing of the donation from Mrs Little.

“I thought she might leave us a bit money, but I never thought it would be over £200,000,” said Sheila. “That was the catalyst that gave us the confidence.”

Mrs Little was registered blind and lived with her son Frank, who had Down’s Syndrome.

The pair relied on the help of Carlisle Mencap, Carlisle Society for the Blind, the RNIB and Age Concern.

But although they lived a modest life, Mrs Little was secretly investing money so that her son could be cared for after her death.

She, however, outlived her son, who died in January 2008 in his late sixties. She then changed her will to divide the cash – almost £1m in total – between the charities that helped her.

Christine Bowditch, chairwoman of Carlisle Mencap, spoke to those gathered of her memories of Mrs Little.

She revealed: “I first met Grace about 30 years ago. She was a quiet, unassuming lady. Her bequest gave us such an incredible start.

“The Grace Little centre is a beautiful place for children to be.”

She said seeing the centre open was a real “pleasure”.

“It’s long been a dream of the Carlisle Mencap committee to have our own children’s centre where they can come for short breaks.

“The children just love it. It's a fun place to be where they are also safe and cared for.

“We are so grateful to all the people who have helped us raise this huge amount of money to help some of the most vulnerable children in our community.”

Those attending yesterday were treated to entertainment from Harvey Tye, 16, of Newtown Road in Carlisle, and Georgia Johnston, 14, of the city’s Denton Holme area. There was a massive cheer for the two as they finished their song and dance routine.

Julia Morrison, corporate director of Children’s Services at Cumbria County Council, was among those there to mark the occasion.

“It seems like the time has gone by in the blink of an eye and we’ve got this fantastic facility,” she said. “It is a really great opportunity for kids to get some space to be themselves.”

Carol Cox, of Scotby, near Carlisle, organised a fashion show that helped with the fundraising. She said: “It’s amazing and we are very lucky. But as a city it’s about time we had something like this.”

Brian Scowcroft took in a tour of the play area after the ceremony. He said: “It’s fantastic. Although it’s on the edge of an industrial park, it’s a lovely setting.”

Carlisle Mencap provides services in north Cumbria for more than 300 people with learning disabilities and their families.

As well as respite care, it provides services including young people’s clubs, holidays and leisure activities.

Sheila added: “We are still raising funds for toys and some other items.

“The next major step will be raising funds for a minibus to take the young people staying at the centre out and about.”

Anybody interested in being a member of Carlisle Mencap can contact the charity on 01228 674393.

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