Balloon release celebrates £400,000 sensory room as charity bounces back from brink

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Multicoloured balloons filled the sky to mark the opening of a life-changing £400,000 room that gives hope to thousands of severely disabled people and their families.

A dramatic rain shower did not put off the hundreds of supporters, staff and users of the Space Centre from celebrating the launch of Space 2.

The official opening of the new space room at the Space Centre in Ashton

The official opening of the new space room at the Space Centre in Ashton

But the creation of this life-changing centre nearly did not happen.

Former fundraiser Fiona Barnes left the charity in dire straits after pretending grants of £800,000 were available to build the new room – a ruse to cover up her thefts of £24,000.

The charity almost had to sell up to pay the debts for the groundbreaking new room until Creative Support, a social care provider, stepped in at the last minute to save it. Although it opened last June, the defiant staff and volunteers deliberately chose the week after Barnes, 55, was jailed for 15 months for theft, fraud and perverting the course of justice, to mark the special phase for the charity.

Leader of Preston Council Peter Rankin was among the guests at yesterday’s celebration.

He said: “Its a fabulous facility for Preston - Prestonians need to be proud of this.

“To see the kids getting something from it, it’s amazing.

“It is a real achievement when you consider what’s happened.

“I can’t believe what (Barnes) did.

“It wasn’t as if she got into financial difficulty and made a mistake - it was planned.”

The staff and volunteers stuck together through the turbulent aftermath of their former colleagues’ crimes and - against all odds - have managed to pursue their dream of a unique multi-sensory room accessible to people with all disabilities.

It means each month, more than 1,000 people with the gravest illnesses, most profound difficulties and severe special needs will be able to enjoy a safe and fun experience alongside their carers and families.

The Space Centre, first established in 1993, now has two large sensory rooms and a third smaller room.

It boasts the largest multi-sensory environment in the UK for people with special needs.

The second room, called Space 2, cost more than £400,000. Among its facilities is a £10,000 giant bubble tube - believed to be the largest ever made - funded by supermarket boss Edwin Booth.

The design was based on Space 1, the charity’s first facility, but has taken on board developments in technology to help disabled people, their carers and their families.

An impressive i-Pad control system allows staff to change the room at a touch, which can give users the experience of being in outer space, at a rock concert or even on a beach - the latter two things most of us take for granted.

Amazing lighting and projection are combined with interactive wall and floor systems.

Perhaps most significantly, wheelchair bound people can now use the room thanks to a system of hoists and an external lift.

Guests can also enjoy a fun illuminated ball pool, water bed, sensory swings and a slide with soft steps and a clamber area.

Centre manager Alison Birch says here are an average of 180 groups booking Space 2 each month - equivalent to 1,000 people of all ages.

She explains: “Space 1 and 2 are great for those who are very mobile, particularly those with autism, or those who cannot move, as the padding allows for safe movement whilst the hoisting, soft seating and water bed can help those who need to be out of their wheelchairs to relax muscles and stretch out.

“Space 3 is for individual use for sensory assessment, stress or anxiety management for anyone with any additional needs including those with dementia.

“Space staff are the lucky ones as we see how our service users benefit every day, learning movement skills, communicating more, controlling their own activities and having fun, essentially having experiences that we all take for granted.”

Jane Robinson, 42, is the deputy manager of the centre.

Her 12-year-old daughter Emily, who has lissencephaly, loves spending time at Space with her family.

Jane, from Lostock Hall, said: “She’s got the development of about a three-month-old, she can’t speak, walk, talk or sit.

“She’s a happy little thing, she loves coming, she loves lights.

“She really appreciates Space.

“It also means we can get her out of her out of the chair onto the water bed and she can stretch out.

“As a family, it’s somewhere we can go.

“If you go to a soft play place you can’t get her out, and also when she was little she would get stood on.”

Jane said there was “nowhere else” like Space, and if it had been forced to close she said: “It would have been devastating.

“She would have had nowhere to go.”