Linda Hargreaves Wilde is an inspiration.
Chairman for Chorley & District Mencap, she has been working with the group - which supports people with learning disabilities - for around 40 years. “I started in the late ‘70s,” she says. “I can’t remember exactly when.”
Mencap, founded in 1946, offers tailored support and help to people living with a learning disability whilst advocating for equal rights and raising awareness of learning disabilities in general. Based at Stump Lane, the Chorley branch has been around for 65 years.
“When I started, the availability of provision for people with learning disabilities was quite sparse,” said Linda “But we offer a full range of services, outings, and holidays - you name it, we’ve done it.
“It’s very rewarding,” she added. “I’ve seen people grow up from children to adults, and it’s lovely to have that continuity.”
A Chorley native who was born literally yards away from the centre, Linda’s passion for the group is palpable. “We’re a safe-haven,” she says. “We aim to give people confidence with a bit of fun: we’re friendly. People come here, they know everyone, they know we offer security, and we keep costs low.
“People get to express themselves and share their knowledge and skills - it really has an impact,” Linda added. “They get to learn and gain confidence so they’re better adapted to go out into the world and gain employment or do charity work.
“It has a long-lasting social influence and the more people that come, the better it is.”
The group gets together five times a week. Mondays are all about drama, music, and computer skills. Wednesdays they do gardening, arts and crafts, cooking, boccia, and ‘kurling’, and in the evening they hold a hugely popular social club. Thursdays are karaoke and games, and their keep-fit sessions are on Friday mornings.
The group is also hoping to start making their own films, with members writing, directing, and acting in the productions. Never ones to shirk a bit of exercise, the group has also been doing the Gateway Award - similar to the Duke of Edinburgh - and are set to take part in the Mencap ‘Round the World Challenge’ in the near future.
Team Leader Janet Watkis, 51, says she does a ‘bit of everything’ at the group. “I enjoy seeing other people happy, especially these guys living with disabilities,” she said. “It puts your own life into perspective. They’re so happy to see you, and if you’re not there they miss you. They’ve got hearts of gold and society can be quite cruel, so this is a safe place.”
Having worked as a volunteer with the group for two-and-a-half years before starting full-time last year, Janet says she relishes her work.
“It’s about getting the best out of them - we’re one big family,” she explained. “It’s so inspirational and heartwarming to see them having fun. We have a right giggle, but if someone’s having problems, we’re there.
“The impact coming here has on people is so tangible,” she added. “When you first meet some people, they can be shy, but we grow with them and allow them to feel at home.”
Funding is crucial. The group doesn’t receive any money from the council and gets only a small amount from Mencap, raising the rest through their small fees and through generous fundraising efforts. Always on the lookout for new volunteers, those interested can contact the group on 01257 241 120.
“We’d like some help, but there’s not a lot of money out there,” explains Linda. “And obviously we’d benefit from government funding, but sometimes then you get government influence as well, and we work so well as we are.”
But, four decades in, the money is not what is really important to Linda. It’s the memories she has and the support she’s been able to offer.
“Over the years, I’ve made so many good friends with the members,” she says. “They’re a part of the family.”