I am hugely proud to call myself a UoS Alumni! I’m 26yrs old and founded my own charity, Project 21, after graduating from the BA (Hons) Special Education Needs & Disability Studies degree at UoS in 2018. As I progressed in to the final year of the course, I decided to write my Dissertation on exploring the perspectives of young men with Down’s Syndrome on love. To my amazement, this went on to win Dissertation of the Year! It is a piece of work I am extremely proud of, especially as it collected and heard the voices of real participants. This was really the start of my journey, and my belief that I could actually start to be the change I wished to see.
Before applying for University, I was feeling unsure of the next step or the direction I wanted to go in. The degree channelled my passion and desire to make real changes and differences within the Care Industry; particularly changing the lives of people with Down’s Syndrome.
The first person I met with Down’s Syndrome was Alfie. Alfie was 11 and additionally has Autism. He loved to sing, dance and was incredibly cheeky. We met every Saturday, and are still best friends nearly 8 years on. Through my relationship with Alfie (and the Down's Syndrome Football Team he played for) I found myself immersed in the Down's Syndrome community. I started to run voluntary trips for people with Down's Syndrome alongside my other day jobs which were working in a school and being a Support Worker for young disabled people. The voluntary trips included going to the West-End in London to see musicals, team building “Go-Ape” adventure days and singing workshops in a local Recording Studio.
I soon realised that the current provision and care in place for young disabled people in our area was not catering to the needs and wants of the people who accessed it. Many provisions consisted of arts and crafts or cut price 'indoor' holiday clubs held in village halls/schools. Although this approach suits some, it definitely does not suit all.
This is where the idea for Project 21 was born; a charitable organisation running innovative activities, clubs and events for people with Down's Syndrome across East Anglia. Project 21 thinks outside the box and listens to the voices of those with Down's Syndrome, putting in to action their wishes. We now run a weekly Saturday Musical Theatre Group, regular full-day dance workshops during school half terms and special, one-off performances/flash mobs in and around our local community. We also secure tickets to any big concerts the group wish to attend (e.g. Ed Sheeran, Little Mix, Mamma Mia at The O2 Arena!) All of these events are great fun, allowing people with Down’s Syndrome to meet like-minded friends and actually spend their time doing something they enjoy. I also ensure we only hire high quality spaces for our workshops, such as professional dance studios and full-size theatres for performances, as opposed to the run down, cold community halls I had been used to working in previously. It was also important to incorporate singing, dancing and music as a way of people with Down’s Syndrome expressing themselves and communicating.
The charity showcases to the world the beauty of Down's Syndrome; empowering people with Down's Syndrome to have a voice and make a stand in a society that often grossly underestimates them. Since starting 18 months ago, Project 21 has now opened a second branch in Essex, and we are always adding to our repertoire of activities! Most recently we started a weekly Over 18s club, where adults with Down’s Syndrome meet in local pubs to have a drink and chat in the evening.
The SENDS degree course at UoS really did help me to make my dream a reality, and the knowledge and skills I learned as a student have been invaluable to starting and running my own charity. Thank you so much to all my lecturers for giving me the courage to pursue my dreams and their continued support towards Project 21- I would not have achieved this without you.