'Absolutely devastating': Parents say there's nowhere else like Hornchurch charity First Step
PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 March 2019 | UPDATED: 13:37 15 March 2019
First Step says it can no longer continue providing its "outstanding services" by drawing on charity reserves.
The charity in Tangmere Crescent, Hornchurch, has provided support for hundreds of children with special needs and disabilities and families are keen to see that the charity does not close despite financial difficulties.
The charity was set up by Gill Hare and Margaret Williams in October 1988 providing support to six families in the Methodist Church Hall in Upminster.
It moved to Dunningford School, Hornchurch, in 1992 and as the charity grew it finally moved to its current site in 2006 after a £1.1m fundraising campaign for the new building.
In 2017 First Step lost funding from the local authority and has had to draw further into its charity reserves.
The charity is made up of around 37 to 39 volunteers, 10 full time members of staff and three full-time volunteers.
“We’re blessed with the most amazing staff and volunteers that you can imagine,” said Mark Halls, chief executive.
“A week ago we shared the news [of the risk of closure] with staff and the response has been phenomenal.
“They’re not thinking about their jobs but about how they can work to keep First Step going.”
Sinead Miller, 26, from Harold Wood, said she was “devastated” when she found out that First Step was at risk of closure.
Her son, Alfie Miller first visited the charity when he was eight months old and had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and global development delay.
She said: “When he first came he didn’t have a diagnosis and we didn’t know what was wrong with him.
“As a parent I don’t know what I would have done without them.
“Alfie was later diagnosed with trauma and it was here that got him out of that. He used to jump at everything.
“They made him into the happy boy he is today.
“It’s been open for more than 30 years and it’s done a world of good to so many parents.”
Sinead met friends, Andrea Guiney, Samantha Black, Sarah Dorrian and Lisa Stevens through First Step.
Andrea said: “It’s not just our children that they support, but us too.
“They point us in the right direction and now that our kids have started school, they’re still offering us support.
“You can’t always put the children in a mainstream setting because they’re going to get lost and everyone wants what’s best for their children.
“There’s no one else like them - not within a 10 mile radius. Most organisations are either full or they’re non-existent.”
First Step faces three options to avoid closure and the charity does not want reducing its services to be one of them.
Mark said: “Option one is that we significantly reduce our services from September 1, 2019, and essentially what that would mean that we would cease all of our educational services - pre-school and PACC.”
PACC (promoting attention, communication and co-operation) sessions involves sessions for youngsters with social communication difficulties or autism spectrum disorders.
Mark added: “PACC is expensive and that’s because of the highly skilled staff we have.
“Option two is that we continue what I consider to be outstanding service for our children.
“The reality is, if we did that our money would run out by about March 2020 next year.
“The only option we were left with is to try and replace that income. There are no magic tricks, it takes a lot of hard work to raise that money.”
First Step is appealing for residents to support the charity in anyway they can.
“We need more volunteers, particularly volunteers who can help with carrying out collections,” said Mark.
“We also need ambassadors, people who are willing to be trained to go out and speak to people about volunteering.”
Visit firststep.org.uk to find out how you can support the charity.