'You see how happy the young people are. The things they have achieved'
Support for young people with disabilities is under acute pressure across London. Neil Baker visits one small charity that has been quietly changing lives in Westminster for over 60 years
There’s a worn out pool table. The bar sells Ribena, Mars bars and crisps. A girl in black leggings and a Chelsea football shirt laughs and dances. This place feels like any other youth club. The only difference is that the young people who come here to have fun, make friends, and get a bit of independence from the adults in their lives all have some form of disability.
Founded as a charity in 1948, The Caxton Youth Organisation was originally a safe haven for underprivileged boys – and later girls – in a city flattened by war-time bombing. Today it helps young people with physical or mental disabilities to thrive in the face of prejudice, exclusion and forced dependence.
On the night I visit, Caxton is open to 18-25-year-olds. The younger ones, aged 11-18, come on different evenings. There are maybe 20 people here. They all live within the borough of Westminster. Some have come under their own steam. Others arrive on a mini-bus that follows a one-hour collection route.
In a side-room people are working on their CVs, studying, or using the internet. There are seven computers, a printer and three buckets to catch the rainwater that percolates through the block of flats above. In the kitchen, Kyri and George are preparing the chicken that everyone will eat later. In another room, Billy the Reiki Master is setting up for a yoga class.
The corridor that connects these spaces is plastered with photos of Caxton members busy enjoying themselves. There are trips to the zoo and other days out. These include weekend visits to the wonderfully named Wey Inspired – a 64-foot narrowboat moored on an island in the River Wey in Surrey, which the group leases from the Environment Agency at a peppercorn rent.
Groups of eight young people visit Wey Inspired every weekend from April to October. They hang out together and learn useful skills. They also get to do the stupid stuff that young people everywhere enjoy when their parents aren’t around – like dropping Mentos into bottles of Coke to see what happens.
Showing me around the club is Rachel Akehurst, the 28-year-old who runs the place. After the quick tour, Rachel explains more about the work Caxton does.
Caxton offers four core programmes that help people to develop communication skills; to “enjoy and achieve” more through art, music, sports and volunteering; to learn about health and personal care, including sexual health and coping with stress; and to become more independent, including managing money and staying safe. Last year it supported over 110 people – 93% of them have Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Funding this work is a constant struggle. Two years ago a third of Caxton’s budget came from the local borough, Westminster. But in the 2015 financial year that was cut by 15%. “We saw it coming, so had cut our overhead substantially,” says Rachel. “Then we were told it would be followed by a 25% cut. And then, just before Christmas, we were told there’d be no money at all. It’s not just us. Nobody will get any money from Westminster Youth Services. There won’t be any at all.”
The news hit Rachel hard. “December was a really horrendous time. We were working around the clock on research and funding applications. It was very stressful. We had to change all our financial projections and reduce services. We had to work out how much longer the project could feasibly survive.”
One of the paid staff had to go. “The young people were absolutely gutted, they loved her,” says Rachel. As other services across London closed, requests came in to help young disabled people from other London boroughs.
Caxton’s articles of association limit it to working inside the boundaries of Westminster, Rachel explains. And she doesn't have the resources to help anyway. There are willing volunteers, but supporting people with complex learning disabilities is skilled work. “What happens in five years’ time when all the skilled workers have gone?” she asks. “Who will help the young people then? It’s a very sad state of affairs.”
If Caxton relied solely on local authority money, it would be closed now, says Rachel. “One of the things I’ve learned in the time I’ve been managing this place is there’s never any financial security in the charity sector,” she continues. “It’s a motivating factor, because everything can just suddenly turn against you, so you can’t take your eye off the ball.”
Rachel started at Caxton as youth worker and has been running the place for nearly four years. Her notional working hours are Monday to Friday, 1pm-9pm. But there are often morning meetings to attend. And she works weekends from April to October.
Her work changes lives, but she’s modest about her role. “We are all about empowering people, so the young people vote to decide what we do,” she says. “They run the club; we are just the pen pushers who make things happen.”
Amid all the budget cuts, knock-backs and worries, what keeps her motivated? “It can be really tough some days, really down and gloomy,” she says. “But you come into work for an evening and see how happy the young people are, those small changes in behaviour, the things they have achieved, because of the work you have done... that’s what keeps me going.”
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