Theatre director Stephen Unwin, father of Joey, a severely learning disabled Bishop's Stortford resident, urges people to support St Elizabeth's Centre during coronavirus pandemic
Stephen Unwin is a theatre director, writer and campaigner for disabled children. Here, he writes passionately about the amazing care his 23-year-old son Joey receives at the St Elizabeth's Centre and why it desperately needs our help during the coronavirus crisis...
Strolling through the streets of Bishop's Stortford with my second son is usually a delightful, often surprising experience.
"Hey, Joey, how're you doing?" shopkeepers call out to him. "What can we get for you today?"
Complete strangers greet him warmly and he gives them a high five, laughing and smiling as he goes on his way.
Because, you see, I live in north London, but Joey has lived in Bishop's Stortford for a while now and is very much part of the community and, it seems, recognised wherever he goes.
But, of course, these aren't normal times. We can no longer visit him, walk through the town to his favourite shops, go out to lunch with him or stride out into the wonderful rolling Hertfordshire countryside.
My Joey is different from most 23-year-olds. He has no speech, is severely learning disabled and suffers from intractable epilepsy.
He needs round-the-clock help with nearly all of the ordinary things in life: cooking, washing and medication.
He attended school and college at the internationally-renowned St Elizabeth's Centre in Perry Green, near Much Hadham, and now lives in supported living, where he's looked after by the care teams attached to St Elizabeth's.
He's a vulnerable lad, but St Elizabeth's hasn't just saved his life, it's given him a great life. We are forever grateful.
When this horrible coronavirus crisis first appeared, my impulse was to pick Joey up and bring him home where we could lie on the sofa watching endless reruns of Monsters, Inc. until the whole ghastly thing had gone away. Needless to say, I didn't.
Although not being able to see him is dreadful, I know that he's in the best place because of the combination of professionalism, kindness, first-class management and a deep ethical commitment that characterises everything about St Elizabeth's and the incredible support that it provides.
But the situation isn't easy for Joey's carers either. For a start, while most of us are stuck at home, they're continuing to turn up to work: they have to, because people like Joey can't survive without their help.
They're being extraordinarily careful and utterly heroic, but the truth is that by virtue of the number of people he comes into contact with, I'm safer from Covid-19 than Joey is at the moment.
For the St Elizabeth's Centre to keep providing its astonishing support for its many residents, both in the town and at Perry Green, in this challenging time, it urgently needs your help.
Gandhi declared that "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members", and the same could be said about a town.
There are two ways that the brilliant people of Bishop's Stortford and the surrounding countryside can prove themselves, yet again, up to Gandhi's great challenge.
First, St Elizabeth's urgently needs people to come and help in this crisis: with their bodies, their minds and their hearts. Some of the usual care staff are quite rightly self-isolating, so the centre needs others to help out – and it needs them now. You'll get quick training and be paid for your efforts. Do it, please. It'll change your life, I can guarantee you.
If you can't help in person, give them some money. The centre relies on a whole range of charitable events which are, inevitably, dependent on communal activities, from sponsored parachute jumps to selling apples, running marathons to knitting hats, all of which have now, tragically, had to be stopped.
Can I beg you, then, from the safety of your own home, to dig deep and support the centre in its hour of need? We're all struggling, I know, but anything you can give to help would be hugely appreciated by so many.
Like all moments of profound crisis, this brings out the best in people – and the worst. This was vividly brought home to me when I rang Joey's house the other day.
"Yeah, we're all right, we're always all right – Joey's laughing, so we must be all right," was the wonderful, indomitable, reassuring answer. But the care manager's account of the difficulties of getting food and other essentials because of the behaviour of more fortunate people was a lot less heart-warming, to put it mildly.
Please do whatever you can to support St Elizabeth's so that when this whole ghastly thing is over and you're walking through the streets of beautiful Bishop's Stortford minding your own business, a blond young man with no words but a dazzling, golden smile will come up to you and offer a high five to show his thanks, his appreciation and his love in the best way imaginable.
* For more information about how to donate and how to apply for a job there, visit www.stelizabeths.org.uk or call 01279 844409.
How you can help St Elizabeth's Centre through these tough times
One of the largest employers in Hertfordshire, St Elizabeth's Centre is just one of many charities facing hardship during the coronavirus crisis, writes its marketing and communications officer Jo Gill.
With all 10 of our charity shops closed, on top of vital fundraising events postponed or cancelled and most grant and trust applications suspended, it's putting a huge strain on fundraising finances.
At present, we are set to lose around £1.2 million in fundraising revenue, causing uncertainty for our future as a team.
We have launched a new fundraising appeal online, informing supporters and followers how they can support the charity through this difficult time.
Methods include direct donations, shopping online via Bishop's Stortford-based charity portal The Giving Machine or Amazon Smile, as well as making a 'virtual visit' to their charity shops via their charity eBay page to snap up a bargain.
We have also put together a Covid-19-related blog entitled Tough Times Blog, to which a number of people related to the charity in different ways have contributed based on what the current situation means for them.
But it's not all take
St Elizabeth's is currently advertising direct care and support employment to the local community and beyond. Perhaps you have been affected financially by Covid-19? Or just fancy a career change? With full-time, part-time and casual roles available across early and late day and night shifts, there is a flexible role to suit everyone.
You don't need any experience in care, just a passion for people and caring for the most vulnerable in our community. Full, fast-tracked training is provided free of charge, with the potential to be working across our residential setting within weeks.
For more information, please visit www.stelizabeths.org.uk or call 01279 844409.