Preston Panthers Disability Sports Club: Paralympians, trips to the Lake District, and life in lockdown
In 1998, Preston City Council's Sports Development Department held a series of sporting sessions for those with physical and learning disabilities. They were a hit and, with parents and coaches keen to keep the sessions going, they came together to form Preston Panthers Disability Sports Club.
A self-funding, not-for-profit sports club for members who live with a range of disabilities, Panthers has gone from strength to strength ever since. Offering members not only an invaluable chance to exercise regularly and form good fitness habits but the chance to be part of a tight and supportive community, the club is open to children and young people between the ages of five and 25.
"There were few clubs who could meet the needs of people who have disabilities, and parents wanted somewhere which would recognise the difficulties they face and adapt," says Ruth Wilkie, the club's Chairperson, on Panthers' founding. "I started going to Panthers just after my youngest son had received a diagnosis of autism.
"I'm a single parent, so it was really good for us both: for me to meet and talk to parents who had been through similar experiences, and for my son as he could be somewhere where he could be himself without being judged," adds Ruth, who is from Preston. "A lot of children come to make friends.
"Members can all participate as equals and are in a positive environment [which] helps members learn valuable social skills without it being a formal educational intervention," Ruth continues. "Some members have grown up with the club [and] some even stay on as volunteers to offer the same support that they once had."
Having worked with Paralympians Isaac Towers and Stephanie Slaters, who won a gold medal at Rio 2016, over the years, Panthers is now the only club of its kind in the city. Not only allowing members to take part in tailored sessions but offering a warm atmosphere, the club's approach enables members to improve their social skills as well.
"It's very important that people with disabilities have physical activity which is incorporated into their lifestyle; as with anyone, the benefits are enormous," Ruth says. "Panthers has very good, resourceful parents who all value what we do and are involved in delivering our service. It's very much a partnership [and] everyone shares the journey."
With the leisure centre closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the club is not currently operating and - on top of the fact that they have to apply for external funding to meet their £10,000 annual costs - has also lost the income stream provided by members' subs for their weekly Saturday swimming and sports sessions.
As well as the 10 to 20 members who usually turn up for the sessions not being able to meet their friends, the club also usually uses the finances generated to fund an annual trip to the Lake District Calvert Trust to try things such as archery, bush-craft, swimming, kayaking, and horse riding as part of a physical and sensory weekend experience.
"One of the highlights is the annual trip to the Calvert Trust Lake District, where I think the biggest changes happen," Ruth explains. "The members gain immense amounts of self-confidence as they take part in outdoor activities."
Normally working with around 10 volunteers, most of whom are UCLan and college students, the club - which has also had to cancel its award ceremonies - is always on the lookout for more to help out when they get up and running once again.
"The bit which will cause most difficulties is going to be the social distancing, as it's very much a tactile environment, especially with the younger members," Ruth says. "If anyone would like to contribute to keep us running, we have a website at prestonpanthersdsc.com where you can get more information and a link to a GoFundMe page."