A pioneering North-East charity supporting autistic people is gearing up for a milestone anniversary. PETER BARRON looks at the benefits of businesses getting involved.

IT all began when a group of parents embarked on a mission that was to change the world for families of autistic children living in the North-east.

Re-mortgaging their homes, they set up what was then called the Tyne and Wear Autistic Society and bought the charity’s first property, a former Jewish Day School in Thornhill Terrace, Sunderland, in 1980. Known as “No. 21”, it became the first school of its kind in the UK, providing educational and residential programmes for autistic children, who were unable to access the support the needed to thrive.

An ambitious vision was outlined to create better opportunities for autistic children and the charity has flourished since those early days. It was renamed the North East Autism Society (NEAS) a decade ago and has developed into a ground-breaking organisation offering a wide range of bespoke services for autistic children and adults, as well as round-the-clock support for families.

Now, plans are being put in place for NEAS to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2020, with an expanded programme of events offering all kinds of opportunities for the North-east business community to get involved with a charity making a difference to families across the region.

Chief Executive John Phillipson hopes that the anniversary will inspire companies to show their support: “The vision of those parents 40 years ago made an incredible difference to families of autistic people in this region. They saw what needed to be done and made it happen. Now we have the opportunity to unashamedly build on that legacy and use the 40th anniversary to make a bigger impact than ever before.”

That impact is already proving invaluable, with a breadth of specialist education, social and vocational programmes, round-the-clock family support services, workshops teaching employment skills, residential homes, supported living arrangements, and toddler groups.

In recent years, the charity has bought and developed New Warlands Farm, near Edmondsley, in County Durham, offering a a diverse range of programmes based on the individual assessed needs of service-users. The programmes comprise a range of vocational and social activities including: woodwork, textiles, IT, horticulture, therapy, leisure, accessing the community, card-making, sensory experiences, and golf.

In Spring 2018, state-of-the-art lodges were opened at the farm to give families short breaks, and the UK’s first autism-friendly golf driving range was launched earlier this year. This month (September) sees the relaunch of prestigious Royal Horticultural Society gardening courses, and an extensive apple orchard is being planted.

While they are busy planting apple trees at the farm, Sophie Clarke – the charity’s Event and Community Fundraiser – has the challenge of growing strong corporate links that will bear fruit in terms of volunteers and fundraising.

“We are really lucky to have loyal corporate supporters who not only raise money but provide volunteers. They are an absolute godsend because the volunteering helps us stage events and keep costs down, while the fundraising generates vital income.

“Corporate Social Responsibility brings so many benefits for companies in terms of developing new skills, team-building and leadership, and most importantly allows to give back in a way that really does change lives. There are going to be even more opportunities as we move forward into our anniversary year.”

A shining example of a company that has forged a mutually beneficial CSR partnership with NEAS is BGL, a digital distributor of insurance and household financial services, based in Sunderland.

The relationship began when BGL helped run a tombola for NEAS at last year’s Durham Shopping Extravaganza at Ramside Hall Hotel, near Durham, which helped raise £10,000. The company went on to sponsor the decorations at a Halloween garden party at Thornhill Park School, and a Christmas Carol service at Sunderland Minster.

BGL also sent a team to help with registrations for the Walk for Autism event at Herrington Country Park, in Sunderland, in April, and recently entered a team in the “Clarty Bairns” fundraising event – a muddy obstacle course – organised by Challenge Northumberland at Stocksfield.

Emily Downes, CSR specialist with BGL, says: “Supporting our local communities is an integral part of our CSR programme. We thoroughly enjoy volunteering for such a fantastic charity that really gives back to so many within the local community. Being able to support NEAS gives us a tremendous sense of pride, not to mention how much fun we have working alongside the team at their fundraising and awareness events.”

Other examples of companies getting involved include:

  • Insurance brokers Jelf: Sponsored the cost of £800 to cover technicalities for the Christmas Carol Service and supported the charity through Jolly Jumper Day in December, as well as dress down days in the office. Employees also took part in Tweed to Tees Bike Ride.
  • Leading independent engineering and services business NG Bailey: Entered a team of four riders for the epic Tweed to Tees Bike Ride and, together with their supply chain, received match funding through the company of £5,400.
  • RT Fitness, Durham:  Raised £500 with a charity bootcamp.
  • Strongman Promotions: Held bucket collections during a series of strongman events and has so far have raised £244.77.
  • Cellular Solutions: Raised £1,332 through Jolly Jumper Day and a Golf Day event at Close House.

Businesses also had the opportunity to support the charity by sponsoring runners in a fun-packed mascot race held at Redcar Races in May, and the idea is to be replicated at Newcastle Races on October 11.

Sophie says: “We’d love to hear from any businesses who have ideas for events or want to get involved with us in any way as we head towards our 40th anniversary.”

And as NEAS continues to expand its services, there are also plenty of opportunities to join the award-winning charity as an employee across a wide range of disciplines, including education, care, and fundraising.

Forty years on from a group of parents striving to provide a better education for their children, the North East Autism continues to find ways to enrich lives – and you can be part of it.