Natalie Valios reports on a project to promote well-being and fight loneliness that is winning admirers
Luv2meetU helped Sarah Pashley and James Stanton become more independent and confident
● Name: Luv2meetU
● Aims and objectives: To support learning-disabled people to develop friendships and relationships, helping combat isolation and loneliness and improving health and well-being.
● Staff: Project lead, project development worker, six support development workers, events and admin co-ordinator, two admin assistants (both have learning disabilities) and more than 50 volunteers.
● Number of members: Just under 200.
● Funding: £225,000 a year from Big Lottery, councils and support provider Hft
● Outcomes: Anecdotal evidence shows improvements in members’ confidence and independence, health and well-being
While friendship is something most people take for granted, it can be more elusive for people with learning disabilities.
Research conducted by learning disability charity Hft in 2006 with the people it supported in Leeds found meaningful friendships and relationships were the biggest things missing from their lives.
Hft sought advice from Stars in the Sky, a London-based dating and friendship service for people with learning disabilities, and in 2007 Stars in the Sky Yorkshire was born.
Initially a two-year pilot, funded by Hft and fellow learning disability provider Dimensions UK, it was extended in 2009 by £180,000 in Big Lottery funding over three years.
Two years on, the project has been re-launched as its own company – Luv2meetU (L2MU) – and was nominated for the personalisation gong at this year’s Laing & Buisson independent specialist care awards, for its impact on users’ health and well-being.
L2MU runs several social events each month for members, and provides a matching service for people wanting to develop a relationship.
All of this has a clear social care focus. “Relationships and friendships for people with learning disabilities are high on local authorities’ agendas so, when they heard about the project, they were interested,” says John Proctor, project lead and assistant regional director (Hft north region).
“When we discussed developing something in their area they were supportive and many provided funding for it.”
One is Bradford Council. The city’s learning disability partnership board has recently commissioned a one-year contract with the friendship and dating agency.
Mairead O’Donnell, the council’s learning disabilities strategic commissioning manager, says: “There are two key areas that feature strongly in support plans for people with learning disabilities: employment and relationships.
“Having a forum where people can decide how they want to use it, either to meet like-minded people to share interests or to develop deeper relationships,where it is all done in a safe way, is a positive move for us.”
The project is also run in Calderdale, north-east Derbyshire and Sheffield, and a support development worker is being recruited for Kirklees.
Social care workers often refer individuals to the service and project staff also signpost members to appropriate professionals for support, for example around sexuality and sexual health issues.
But with the Big Lottery funding due to come to an end in March 2012 and local authorities often only putting in money for the first year, it is looking for future funding opportunities.
“We charge members an annual fee of £40 which doesn’t remotely cover the cost of running the project,” says Proctor. “Long-term we are hoping that people will use personal budgets to buy into the service but that’s a massive transition. We would also like there to be a service level agreement with local authorities so that we become part of their core funding structure.”
The aim was always to turn the service into a community interest company (CIC) – a form of social enterprise – so that it had it own legal identity and was run as its own business. With this in mind, Hft decided to rename the agency in 2010 and members chose the name Luv2meetU.
It became a CIC in March 2011 and a board of directors, half of them people with learning disabilities, is now up and running. There will be a phased transition from Hft managing the agency.
Membership of L2MU is open to everyone, but prospective members have to provide references, including one that evidences they have learning disabilities, and declare any criminal convictions. “We have only refused membership to a handful of people mainly because of convictions for serious criminal offences,” says Proctor.
Staff and volunteers receive a Criminal Records Bureau check and also provide references. “We do everything we can to make sure everyone is safe,” he adds.
Members decide on the events they want the agency to run which have included meals out, trips to the cinema and theatre, days at the coast, barge trips, swimming and bowling. An event list is advertised on L2MU’s website so that members can ring in and book a place.
Speed-dating events are also popular and there is a chaperone service to make sure that if anyone wants to take things further and go on a date they are safe.
“A member of staff or volunteer will talk to them about where they would like to go and how they would like to be supported,” says Proctor. “Say they go to a pub; the chaperone will normally sit somewhere else so they are there if needed but not part of the date.
“We will offer a chaperone more than once if that’s what they would like. But we are conscious that they are adults and, if they don’t want support from their family or a professional, that is their choice.”
Now L2MU’s success has been recognised through the Laing & Buisson awards.
The judges said: “As a response to reports that people with learning disabilities often feel excluded from fulfilling social lives, Hft designed something which not only tackles the negative impact that these feelings can have on both mental and physical health, but also gives people the tools and confidence to meet new people and build lasting friendships.”
James Stanton and Sarah Pashley (pictured, top) have been dating for nine months after meeting through L2MU.
Over the course of several events – including meals out, cinema and theatre trips and day trips to Whitby and London, they built up a friendship. They had similar reasons for joining L2MU. “I wanted to meet more people and I wanted to do speed-dating and find a girlfriend,” says Stanton.
“I was only going out once a week to a youth club so I wanted to get out more and make more friends – and I wanted a boyfriend,” says Pashley.
After attending two speed-dating nights they realised their feelings for one another had grown. They were chaperoned for their first three dates, which all involved going out for meals, and afterwards they swapped phone numbers and started arranging their own dates.
“I liked Sarah’s sense of humour,” says Stanton. “We have similar interests like swimming, ten-pin bowling and playing pool.”
“I always win at pool,” laughs Pashley. “I liked James’s sense of humour, too, and he is independent and chatty like me.”
They both feel that L2MU has helped them get out more, make friends and become more independent and confident. They see each other once a fortnight and text a lot in-between.
The relationship is serious, to the point where, says Pashley, “everyone keeps asking, ‘when is the wedding?’.”