'IncredABLE' project inspiring and empowering young lives

From small beginnings 25 years ago, the incredABLE project today empowers more than 500 young people with a learning disability and autism. Among them is James Harrison from Dromore, Co Down. His mother Allison shares how it has given him a 'sense of purpose'.

James Harrison with his mother Allison. The Co Down man says taking part in the 'We are incredABLE' programme for people with learning disabilities and/or autism has made him 'very happy'.

A CO Down mother says it's like 'winning the lottery' to have found a safe, meaningful and fun environment for her adult son with learning disabilities to attend right on their doorstep.

James Harrison, who recently turned 24, has gone from being in a "very bad headspace" to someone with a sense of purpose and an enjoyment of life thanks to his involvement in the 'We are incredABLE' programme, which received over £500,000 of funding from the National Lottery Community Fund.

The unique project aims to address the lack of options for purposeful day opportunities that many young people with a learning/intellectual disability and/or autism face when leaving the highly supportive school environment.

The programme has been rolled out across the Southern Health and Social Care Trust area and provides young adults with the opportunity to develop friendships, improve confidence, increase independence and gain transferable skills through the provision of essential life, work and group skills at a key transitional stage.

When James first joined, he was in the depths of depression and didn't want to leave the house - he now cannot wait to get out the door to do a day's work in one of the project's aspiring social enterprises.

His mother Allison says no amount of money can measure the impact We are incredABLE has had on her family.

"When James left his special school in Armagh, which he'd attended from the ages of six to 19, he experienced what can only be described as a bereavement," she explains.

"There was a huge sense of loss at having been cut off from all he ever knew, and he went into a depression and wouldn't leave the house."

There were no daytime opportunities suitable for James, but eventually the Dromore family discovered a youth club called 'incredABLE Together'.

James has honed his household skills, including cooking, through his involvement with incredABLE.

The weekly two-hour recreational programme being delivered in both Craigavon and Banbridge, as part of the We are incredABLE project, was highly compatible to James's needs.

"James, who has autism and a severe learning disability, was in a very bad headspace but I pushed him to go and I'm so glad I did persevere because it's become part of a new routine," says Allison.

Now, every other Wednesday, James heads off to his youth club, while every Tuesday morning, he's standing ready in his coat, an hour too early, to go to his work skills placement at 'incredABLE-y made' - a skills-based day opportunity, set up by the project's enterprise strand to provide experience in printing, production and packaging, in a real social enterprise environment.

James previously completed the independent living skills strand of the project, 'incredABLE me'.

Allison says: "The incredABLE me programme takes place in The Drumbee Old School House in Armagh. It's a lovely setting in quiet countryside. He refreshed all the household skills he already knew but didn't want to know.

"They do cooking, baking, looking after themselves - huge things for James and for me because it's reinforcing what I've been trying to do with him at home.

"On the days when the weather's not good, they do jobs about the house, and when the weather is better, they go out for walks in the country or they go to the gym. They even went on an outward-bound course where James went on the low ropes and zip line.

"It's all in such a nice, safe environment that after going a couple of times, James realised he had nothing to be frightened of. At the end of the 16-week programme, they had a sleepover.

"James doesn't really sleep so I had said to them to ring me and I'd come and get him at any time through the night, but they didn't ring, which was another huge milestone for us."

James is part of the incredABLE-y made team, who produce amazing hand-poured Belgian chocolate lollies, hot chocolate melts and S'mores kits.

James is now a vital part of the incredABLE-y made team, producing amazing hand-poured Belgian chocolate lollies, hot chocolate melts and S'mores kits - with plans to expand their chocolate-making empire.

Initially, Allison thought a full day would be too much for him, but James relishes every minute he is there, doing anything asked of him, from pouring and packaging chocolate, to washing up and vacuuming – something he couldn't bear the sound of in his own house due to severe sensory issues.

For Allison, it's the staff involved in all aspects of the We are incredABLE project who account for its success.

"Everyone has been so accommodating," she says.

"He's been going for years now and there's a consistency in the staff, which speaks for itself, and they all have a genuine reason for being there.

"James is a visual learner. Language means nothing to him. There's room for everyone if someone takes the time to show them how to do something. Some people might think he doesn't try but it's because he hasn't been shown what to do.

"At incredABLE, they've taken the time with him. He's very precise so everything he does is done to a very high standard.

"He has a sense of purpose now. After school, he felt there was no place for him but now he can see that he can do something. He used to feel a failure if something didn't work out but he doesn't feel that any more.

"When they offered James a place on the incredABLE me programme, it was like me winning the lottery; for someone who didn't want to go out to now actively wanting to go out, that's huge. It was a really nice group of people who had the same goals as us and you just don't usually get that. People need to know about this project.

"Even last year, during the pandemic when they couldn't meet, they kept going with online classes which meant a lot because we weren't seeing anybody because of the lockdown.

"We were able to keep up the routine otherwise we'd have lost all the hard work, so he continued his incredABLE programme and still does, as well as going out to the shops with his Daddy and other things - but he does like his 'rest days'.

"It's great for him to learn to take instruction from someone other than me as well as learn to work alongside other people with different views from him."

James is part of the incredABLE-y made team, who produce amazing hand-poured Belgian chocolate lollies, hot chocolate melts and S'mores kits.

Allison adds: "I remember there were many, many, many times I cried because he went from being a happy boy to a very sad boy, which was horrific for us to watch.

"James just crumbled after he left school, so we thought we'd give incredABLE a go, but if he was too much for them, we'd understand, even though we'd be dying inside. But if you could see the difference in him now...

"Alannah Heslip, a project worker at the Banbridge youth club, also delivered the incredABLE me programme, and to have that continuity was so important.

"James knew her and she knew him so she was able to gently push him and encourage him; she would have known if he was having a bad day or not and would've reported it back home so we always knew what was going on.

"I have a lot to thank her for. They're all a great bunch of people and I can't thank them enough, how could you ever measure what they do?"

For James himself, he describes incredABLE as "the best", adding, as a ringing endorsement, "I'm happy."

James has gained transferable job skills at incredABLE-y made.

James is one of many young people the project has supported since its inception in 2017, made possible through a National Lottery grant.

Gemma McKinney, the project's co-ordinator, was only too aware of the gap in meaningful daytime provision for young people like James when she took up the role.

At an extremely important time in a young person's life, when they are transitioning from the safety and familiarity of a school environment, that void can have a hugely detrimental effect on a young person's physical and mental health.

"The We are incredABLE project was established to address this chasm through the creation of 'incredABLE opportunities' for 'incredABLE people'," she says.

"Through a targeted mix, we have seen an increase in motivated, confident and self-assured young people with improved skills for life and work and recognition of the sense of worth and value that these incredABLE young people experience through our holistic approach to service delivery.

"Achieving this level of impact would simply not have been possible without the financial support and backing of The National Lottery Community Fund.

"Such assistance cannot be taken for granted or under-rated in terms of the wealth of benefits it provides to those often most isolated and marginalised in our society."

James with Gemma McKinney, the We are incredABLE co-ordinator

Thanks to National Lottery players, over £30 million is raised each week for good causes such as We are incredABLE.

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