SNAP’s humble beginnings have now supported 5,000 families
Founding members Hilary Needham and Paula Hills explain their drive to start a support group
What was the prompt to get SNAP started?
We were a group of friends at the Keys Hall Parent and Toddler Group and we were concerned about the lack of provision for families such as mine who had children with special needs. I had learned a lot from having my son Jack and I didn’t want others to struggle like I had, we decided to do something about it. We started our first sessions on Mondays 12.45pm – 2.45pm at a cost of £6.45 for room hire that was paid to Brentwood Council.
We had to formalise the group so the first meeting was held on 7th July 1994 at 8.00pm round my kitchen table at my address. The name SNAP was chosen, our first session was planned for 12th September and our meetings were scheduled for every 2 weeks at 8.00pm at my house. (There was no point in starting any earlier as it can often take a while to settle children with special needs at bedtime!)
Paula In 1990, our son suffered a huge and devastating brain injury at birth so we were instantly flung into trying to discover how to help him. I used to take him to various groups in North London and Kent in search of information and support also I met Gill Hare from First Steps through Harold Wood Hospital. Encouraged by the Essex County Council 0 to 5 Service, a group of Mums got together to help produce their family newsletter, and we went on to start a music therapy charity based in Chelmsford. I soon realised how much I needed a group of women in the same situation as myself as together we were stronger.
By this time, I had acquired a considerable amount of knowledge and information about what was available to support us and felt I wanted to share this with other mums on their journey.
I already knew Hilary through the Keys Hall Parent and Toddler Group and together with a few other local mums who we knew had difficulties with their toddlers we approached the Keys Hall group to allow us to borrow their toys so we could provide a specific group. SNAP was created.
How tough were the early days of the charity?
Paula You have to remember in 1994 there was no internet and word processors were very expensive and rare. So lots of typing, cutting and sticking of labels, telling parents we were here by putting flyers in doctors surgeries, schools, playgroups. Our own families should be thanked for putting up with so many phone calls and tons of paperwork which really dominated the first few years. We used to meet at Hilary’s house as she had a word processor (computer) so when we weren’t at Keys Hall on a Monday afternoon we were at Hilary’s.
We quickly realised we had to make SNAP a registered charity so we could apply for grants to fund our growing ambitions.
Hilary As SNAP started to grow there were more and more boxes of toys and information that were stored in my dining room!!! It was physically demanding when they had to be carried in and out of my car to the hall each week.
Giving parents information, encouragement and support, it was wonderful to see how their confidence grew and that in turn was reflected in a positive way on their child’s development, happiness and the dynamics of the whole family.
My home phone number was at the bottom of the leaflets and I would often have distressed families and also professionals who wanted more information, calling day and night.
There was no internet, we found out about organisations from the back of the books we ordered for the library. There were no computers, until I managed to get one from Alan Sugar at a reduced rate as he had his Amstrad Office down the road in Brentwood!
SNAP has always been needs led, if we had an idea or there was a good person who wanted to help or could offer a service then I often went with it even if it did take us off piste at times!
When did you realise you were making a difference?
Hilary On a daily basis we have glowing feedback from families and friends in the community about the wonderful work that SNAP does. SNAP is still here 25 years after and as the needs of the family change and evolve SNAP is there to keep you on track. SNAP is interested in the WHOLE family and there to support everyone.
Parents told us they wanted SNAP to have its own purpose built centre so the range of information and support services could develop and be offered all year round! Despite the regular growth this was a huge jump and we became aware that there was no going back, this had to happen.
Paula I think I began to realise this as the number of families grew. SNAP has always been a ‘needs led’ organisation and the more families we had the more the needs grew so from starting with a toddler group providing information and books we quickly started providing more activities for our families. We began working in partnership with The Brentwood Centre to provide training about our children and how to help them so they would be happy to include them in their sports activities and we haven’t stopped since.
The high points along the way?
Hilary There have been so many high points but some of the most significant for me must be
- The First office that we got with the help of Lottery funding £39,500 where we were able to convert the smelly old caretakers office at Keys Hall into a tiny office and move the boxes and phones from my home!
- The SNAP Directory that evolved over the years from a few pages of useful contacts in the middle of the newsletter to a thick bound book that was commissioned by ECC social services and was often referred to by families and professionals as ‘The Yellow Pages’ as it had so much useful information. Today of course it is an amazing resource in the comprehensive SNAP website.
- SIBS – I have always been passionate about the needs of siblings. It is tough being the brother or sister of some of our children and young people and I was thrilled to offer sibling activity weeks in 1999 and 2000 at the end of the school summer holidays when family life can often be at its toughest.
- The new Building, The SNAP Centre was a huge achievement. To secure, finance and equip the derelict building and transform it into a Centre of Excellence that it is today was truly remarkable. The Royal Opening when Sophie, The Countess of Wessex arrived in her helicopter and landed on the grass outside was a wonderful day and a very fitting culmination of Nicola’s hard work and dedication. I concentrated on maintaining and developing the services whilst Nicola project managed the move and set up of the fabulous bespoke premises. SNAP could never have developed and grown to where it is today without Nicola’s drive and determination, she made the dream become reality.
- My Civic Award, my Dad was so proud and as a big SNAP supporter I am so pleased he knew about this just before he passed away.
- My MBE that I had the honour of receiving in 2012 from Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace. It was amazing recognition of the wonderful work of the SNAP team and all that had been achieved over the years.
- We have over the past few years also been recognised for Business awards – it is so good to be awarded not only for the wonderful work that we do but also that SNAP is a strong capable well run organisation with robust plans for the future.
Paula Getting funding from the National Lottery in 1998 to refurbish and open our first office in Keys Hall which was previously the caretakers office. This gave us credibility, we were serious about SNAP and our desire to improve the lives of our families. This allowed us to move ourselves and our paper away from our homes and certainly felt like SNAP was on the map. We managed to get funding from Scope to fund our first paid member of staff, (Hilary became our Manager) this really moved SNAP forward quickly as up to this point everything had been done on a voluntary basis. I think this is why volunteers are still an essential part of SNAP.
A continuous high point for me is to be able to witness parents, faced with life challenging difficulties, flourish once given the right knowledge, support and information.
What were the biggest challenges?
Hilary In the early days it was certainly the environment, the leaking roof above a desk, the bus drivers stopping off to use the toilets in the foyer at Keys Hall disturbing our conversations and library visitors and the counselling in the shower room with coats on! – to name but a few!!!
Although constantly reviewed we have always been confident we have the formula of what families need and there is always the strong passion to offer an outstanding service. Dedicated, knowledgeable, trained staff and volunteers who make you feel welcomed and valued, can listen to your concerns and help point you in the right direction. It’s the people that matter and SNAP is blessed with amazing staff and volunteers. This doesn’t just happen, our team are very special dedicated people who believe passionately about what they do and always happy to go the extra mile to make things happen.
We know that the special needs group is not the place that people would chose to come to but hopefully if they are brave enough to pick up the phone, email or visit then they will soon realise that they are not alone, there is a fantastic organisation out there that can help them and for some that relief never leaves them.
We have and always will need money but now more than ever as services around us are collapsing and with all the cutbacks locally and nationally more and more families are turning to SNAP. The growth is phenomenal and has to be very carefully managed balancing the needs of our families with the resources and funds available. SNAP is very fortunate to have a very strong board of Trustees, some of whom have been with us for many years and collectively they have a diverse range of skills and it is their responsibility to help steer the charity.
The sustainability of SNAP is a real challenge and we rely on everyone to help us to raise the £600,000 that we need each year to run and we constantly have to review how we can match the demand with the resources that are available.
Paula The biggest challenge for me was to make sure I kept the balance in my life, I didn’t want my son and family to miss out in anyway so I learnt to juggle SNAP and the family, hopefully successfully. Personally I found helping to start SNAP so rewarding and worthwhile it gave me some much needed purpose.
How would you describe the journey?
Hilary My son Jack, who still challenges me on a daily basis is the inspiration and drive that changed the direction of my life dramatically. He was of course the start of my journey into special needs.
Most importantly it’s the people that make SNAP so special and the greatest thing for me is the wonderful people that I have met along the way, the families, volunteers, supporters and staff who have been part of the journey. It has been an absolute privilege to have been part of so many lives and share so many special moments. We know SNAP has a very special place in many hearts and I have pride every day that what started as a good idea 25 years ago has now helped over 5,000 families.
Paula I have often described SNAP as a huge snowball going down a mountain – it just got bigger and bigger and as long as we dug a route for the snowball we could keep it on track! Sometimes we had to curb our and our families dreams and ambitions for SNAP to make sure we developed structure and a solid foundation on which to build. SNAP’s numerous trustees over the years have managed to provide good governance and guidance providing this structure.
Did you ever envisage SNAP would be as big as it is today?
Paula We have always consulted with our families on what they needed and when in early 2000s the answer came back as our own building – my goodness was that a leap into the unknown. Once we secured the funding and found the ideal building we knew SNAP would be growing. If we have a building we would have to fill it providing more of what our families needed, and to fund a building and its staff was and is a huge challenge. Thankfully SNAP is well established in the local community now and is given fantastic support which is heartwarming.
Hilary We have come a long way since our humble beginnings when SNAP started with 8 like minded women round my kitchen table. When we moved to our new premises and developed our services, that is when the rapid growth really started. To think that SNAP has helped over 5,000 families over the 25 years and is currently supporting over 2,700 families.
SNAP has an excellent team and in a strong position for the future, we’ve grown together and learned together. We will never forget the children who inspired us 25 years ago to make lives of Essex families who have children and young people with special needs that bit easier.
It is essential that SNAP continues to grow from strength to strength particularly in these difficult times. As one of our parents recently said, “Having somewhere to go is a gift”