Since opening our doors for the first time in June 2014 we have gone from strength to strength. Over 350 families have registered to play at our facility at Swings & Smiles. We are delighted to be able to provide a specialist, fully resourced recreational play facility for families of children with learning difficulties and disabilities.
When Katie was born in the summer of 2006 we had a diagnosis regarding her visual impairment within 2 weeks. She had a diagnosis of micropthalmia (small eyes), retinal coloboma (a wedge of retina is missing from both eyes) and rotational nystagmus.
Over the next year it was obvious that Katie did in fact have more far significant problems than at first thought. We entered into an unknown world of hospital tests and investigations to try and determine what was wrong and whether there was a diagnosis. Eventually, after a lot of time and effort, Katie was diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome. This means that Katie has both physical and cognitive difficulties making everyday life a real challenge for her and the rest of the family.
However, since visiting Swings & Smiles we have seen Katie explore and develop more and more independence. Apart from at home and school, this is the only place that she can do this. Katie started off coming in her walker and needing a lot of assistance to move around the building. Now she free walks and is so speedy she disappears down the corridors and knows how to use the lift! She climbs into the ball pit on her own and takes herself off to the slide.
What is just as important for us is that her older brother William, aged 9, has also got to know people and make friends at Swings & Smiles. He and Katie both get equal attention and he knows that everyone wants to be his friend too which is really important to him. As a family of six, Katie and William have an older brother and sister too, we all enjoy coming to Swings & Smiles for family play but also special events such as Katie’s birthday, Halloween and regular music therapy sessions.
Meeting other parents is great fun as well as getting to know the lovely, fun Swings & Smiles team – being here is like a breath of fresh air and I don’t know what we would do without it.
mother to Katie
When I fell pregnant for the third time we were extremely excited about the new arrival. Everything had gone smoothly
during my pregnancy and, with a healthy boy and girl in the family, we had no reason to think that Eddie would be any different.
However, the delivery proved very tricky and Eddie was born traumatised and taken immediately to special care where he stayed for a month. We were then told that, as a result of the problems during the delivery, Eddie was showing signs of having been affected by this. He was born with very low muscle tone, poor kidneys and unable to feed, meaning he had to be fed by tube for quite some time.
Eddie is now 16 years old and we really have had to take each day at a time. The tiredness takes over along with the lack of having any control over your own life – there is no such thing as a straightforward day. The most difficult things I have had to
deal with have been the numerous hospital operations Eddie has had to have and we’ve found that the only way to cope is to depersonalise it when it comes to decision making to make sure we do what’s best for him. Our two older children have found it very difficult to deal with and although they were old enough to understand what was going on they didn’t appreciate the complexities.
Eddie loves coming to Swings & Smiles and gets very excited about going on the slide and in the ball pit. He really enjoys being with both older and younger people and gets real benefits from the social interaction. As a mum with an older child with special needs I have got real pleasure from having the knowledge to pass onto other parents who have younger children and I feel like I have achieved something by being able to offer them advice and help. They then hopefully feel that they are not on their own.
Everyone loves the quirks of the children who come to Swings & Smiles – it’s a real family with no segregation and we know that we are all in this together.
mother to Eddie
When Georgia was born in 2011, I had 30 blissful worry free minutes as I cradled my perfect baby daughter in my arms before I entered a world of huge uncertainty and anxiety. With a larger than average head, Georgia was immediately taken for tests and so we entered a world of regular hospital visits.
Over the next couple of years more and more problems became apparent as she was diagnosed with a very rare problem with her eyes and a kidney condition. An MRI scan detected brain abnormalities and, on top of these, it was clear that her development was delayed.
Within a very short period of time we had to come to terms with the fact that Georgia clearly had significant problems and we found ourselves in a position that we were completely unprepared for. With no specific diagnosis, there were no support groups available to us. So, as her mother and being with her 24 hours a day, I found myself increasingly shutting myself at home with Georgia not wanting to face the outside world. On occasion, I did brave the local mother and baby groups but found myself
wanting to just run away from them and burst into tears. The stark contrast between Georgia and the other children was very apparent and other parents were staring and, without meaning to, passing judgement. I just couldn’t find anywhere where we felt comfortable as a family.
When we heard about Swings & Smiles we were one of the first families to visit them when they opened at The Phoenix Resource Centre. It was such a relief to be able to take Georgia and her 8 year old half sister, Issy, somewhere they could play together in an environment that was suitable for both of them. We found ourselves able to be a ‘normal’ family without worrying about what other people were thinking and being self conscious – which is how we had always felt previously. We have got to meet families who are in similar situations to us and, as a result, feel less isolated.
We are now regular visitors to Swings & Smiles and it has transformed our ability to play as a family. Georgia, Issy and their new friends enjoy all of what’s on offer at Swings & Smiles and, in particular, the messy play sessions!
mother to Georgia
My husband Lucio and I were delighted when we discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. However, during the pregnancy it became apparent that there were problems and we were then given the shattering news that our unborn baby had
a chromosome abnormality.
There could be no certainty of what would be wrong and to what degree but we
decided to go-ahead with the pregnancy and just prayed that we would be able to give our child a good quality of life.
Olivia was born in July 2001 and it was soon apparent that she had global developmental delay. She took her first steps at the age of six and spoke her first word aged 6½ years. She has a sensory fear of the unknown and has fixations rather than an interest in typical play. It has been a long journey for us. We have two other children, Gianni (aged 10) and Santino (aged 9), both of whom love their sister.
One of the hardest things for us has been the inability to let Olivia go anywhere. She has no sense of danger, her balance
is poor and despite trying numerous social activities none of them have worked. We even found ourselves taking Olivia to a Car Wash as an activity because she really enjoys watching the car being washed – not a typical play activity for a 13 year old girl! When you don’t have a special needs child one of the things you probably don’t appreciate is that special needs children often have no friends, they are not invited to birthday parties and it is a heartbreaking journey seeing your child in this position.
We were very concerned about bringing Olivia to Swings & Smiles for the first time as we were afraid that another social
opportunity for her would end in failure and more despair for us as a family. The first time Olivia visited Swings & Smiles she was incredibly nervous of her surroundings. However, as time went on she became more and more at ease. Swings & Smiles has proved to be a completely new experience for us as a family. Olivia has flourished since coming to play here and often the first thing she says when she gets back from school is ‘I want to go to Swings & Smiles,’ – a first for us and a happy one!
After 13 long years we have finally found somewhere we can play as a whole family. I can take Olivia’s food for her as she needs specially prepared food and there is a kitchen we can use. It isn’t too noisy for her, there is no staring and we all feel very comfortable as soon as we walk through the doors.
Her brothers love it at Swings & Smiles – there is no DS or Minecraft just good old-fashioned play where they can all just mess around together with none of us worrying about what other people think or say because everyone is in a similar position to us.
mother to Olivia