A personal and open-hearted reflection from Andy Robinson, CEO, a former beneficiary of Enhance Social Enterprise through the School for Social Entrepreneurs Dartington’s Devon and Somerset Social Entrepreneurs Programme.
Our Sixth Birthday
Incredible as it may sound You First is hurtling towards its sixth birthday. Incorporated at Companies House on the 18th February 2014 as a Community Interest Company, You First has grown into a Social Enterprise with a solid reputation for supporting people with complex needs to live successfully and on their own terms. More than this, the people we support are building meaningful links with their local communities and by that, I mean with the groups of people with whom they identify. It is this that makes building community connections both purposeful and meaningful.
Approaching our sixth birthday has caused me to reflect on that six-year journey; the highs and lows, the successes, the learning opportunities, the people who have supported this journey but most importantly the people whose lives we have been allowed into during this period. I mean that sincerely – the people You First supports have allowed us into their lives, trusting us to work with them to build and grow their lives in a way that is meaningful and makes sense to them and in a way that follows their own chosen path free of external influence or control.
This is what true empowerment means – arriving at a place where one believes one can direct ones own life and then taking the steps to actually do that – acting upon that inner realisation; following ones own “inner voice” and not the voices of others who assume to “know better”. This is a natural and necessary process for us all and it’s a journey each of us have taken as part of the process of socialisation, but for someone with a learning disability and/or autism, it can represent a challenge, most especially for people whose interactions with people have led to a build in deference and an inner conviction and belief that they are “less than”. You First prides itself on our strengths-based approach to support that enables people to safely arrive at a place where they realise their life and their future is their own and that each individual has the personal power to lead a life that is self-determined and self-directed.
Reflecting upon this many people who You First has supported to make this personal journey come to mind. I am incredibly proud of the fact that through interacting with You First people achieve or indeed regain their personal power and go on to express in real ways so that it is them and only them who influence their lives. Design4Life!, our unique response to Individual Service Design, ensures that each person’s support is absolutely unique to them built around the person and who they are, not just what their needs may be. Every single person on this planet has “needs” but for support to work it had to be based upon each person as an unique individual, regardless of the perceived disability that person has been labelled with.
For example, meet one autistic person and that’s all you have done – met one individual with autism. Autistic people “not being able to cope with change” is a myth that the lives of many people we support happily blow out of the water Change is everywhere, nothing is permanent or fixed. As an old teacher of mine used to say, “change is here to stay”.
One of our customers, E, has demonstrated, most emphatically, that she could indeed cope with change when she was in control, when she had the reigns of her life in her own hands. E could also manage change when he was being “worked with” not being “done to”. E’s life opened so much with this approach that she was determined to come and speak with the CQC Inspector at our last inspection. The Inspector, after hearing from E looked at her and said “all you needed was to be heard”. E now has her own organic allotment, a profitable Avon round, volunteers to walk people’s dogs and has had undertaken a college course in carpentry. E has also worked with You First as an Expert by Experience.
S’s experience of life had led him to have low expectations of himself yet our strengths-based approach enabled him to experience that inner journey of empowerment. This approach provided a clear picture of S the person, S the man, S the human being with all his unique gifts and abilities and all his human frailties, just as any person alive has. S began to show us, in his own way, how he wanted to be supported and from a lifetime of having the inner belief that he could not achieve he progressed to passing his driving test and this has led him to find genuine employment.
M is a powerful example of what good integrated social care looks like. You First began working with M following the collapse of her previous support package. You First leaders had known M for many years and through this personal knowledge alongside the support of family and key professionals within Somerset Partnership we were able to work with M in such a way that saw her not only regain the skills she once had, but develop new ones. M now enjoys a life on her own terms, accesses her local community where she is building relationships and has a life that is enriching, rewarding and that is controlled by her.
Our role is clear, we enable people to live in a way that provides people with the freedom to socially engage with their chosen community in a way that is both purposeful and meaningful and that makes sense to them.
When we were introduced to C we met a man whose support was sporadic and who was hugely frustrated at not being able to pursue his own interests or achieve the goals he had set himself. C doesn’t have a learning disability, but he does have autism and he was able to show us how his autism affected his daily life. He was intrinsically involved in the development of his own Design4Life! and Life Plan and he built in his own expectations and outcomes into this. Through consistent support C has been able to pursue his love of photography and not only enjoy this but to go on and win awards for it.
Of course, life isn’t all about laughs and good times. People we support experience hugely tough and challenging times, just as we all do. Through the mere fact that we are human problems will arise, curved balls will be thrown, our health status will change and confusing situations will present themselves. All human beings encounter pain and loss, grief and sorrow, sadness and low times throughout the journey of life however our Micro-Team approach to support means that each person has a dedicated team that they have chosen and have control over so that relationship is the absolute foundation of support. This means that when tough times arise through dedicated, professional and well supported teams we can work with people in a way that enables them to surf the waves of life as opposed to being consumed by them.
For W, his network of support extends beyond that of his family, Micro-Team and local community to the people who work in the You First office. These relationships are central to his sense of wellbeing and for him, inform a valued way of life. Steph, You First’s Office Manager says:
“When thinking about W, my first thought is always “incredibly sociable”. W loves his community and being out and about seeing everyone. He doesn’t need attention for long; a “hello” and “how are you” and hopefully a hug to go with it, and he is happy that contact has been made. W is also very kind and caring; I received a lovely card from him when I went into hospital for an operation last year. W loves to laugh and, hearing him roar with laughter, you cannot help but laugh yourself. He knows exactly what he wants, and woe betide you if you stand in the way of that! W loves company, the outdoors, the sun, his coffee and a cigarette – all these things, when in place, make him a happy man.”
Who Really Has the Power? I have been working in social care for almost 30 years and I will put my hand on my heart and say that the people who have taught me the most about what good social care looks like are the people themselves. Of course, we need solid psychological and sociological foundations upon which to base support and I am absolutely clear that staff must be well trained, well supported and involved but the true experts, those who really know what life is all about for them and how they want to live are the people themselves. They are the experts of their own lives and the challenge to us as professionals who all too often think we know best is to stop, step back and listen together with asking the question “who really has the power here?”
All the people we support have taught me so much in these six years and this learning from the people that matter inform much of how You First approaches support. There will always be trends and the latest national driver or local initiative, and all these things are important and have their place but at the heart of everything are real people, leading real lives, facing real challenges and the simple key to getting this right for them is to simply listen.
Thank you to everyone who has crossed our path; this is the simple and only reason You First exists.
Happy Birthday You First, and here’s to the next six years!