East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST)

The continuing closure of mental disability hospitals in the 1980’s and 1990’s generated a need for suitable accommodation for the severely disabled seeking specialised care in the community.

Unfortunately, as the closures continued, it became apparent that there was a lack of specialised care and accommodation with young people with autism in the community.

Some parents desperate for appropriate care for young people with autism felt forced to find means of finding accommodation and professional care.

One such project was the creation of Juniper House in Cambridgeshire by the East Anglican Autistic Support Trust (EAST).

My wife and I were concerned that there was no appropriate care in our home county, Cambridgeshire.

Some families had to travel hundreds of miles to see their disabled relatives.  Some children and young adults with severe autism cannot live in their family homes because they need a high level of specialist care and support.

So we formed the Trust in 1991 and launched an appeal to build specialised accommodation for young adults with autism.

Our initial aim was to raise about £1 million to build specially adapted accommodation for about sixteen people.

The first task was to bring together a team of committed people who could bring a variety of skills to the project.

We registered the trust with the Charity Commissioners and began to launch our fundraising campaign.

I became the Chair of the charity. My wife, Maggie, was secretary and Alasdair MacGillivray, an accountant, played an absolutely central role as our treasurer.  We also recruited a number of patrons and vice presidents from the “good and the great” of Cambridgeshire.

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) gave us a grant to fund a feasibility study on the project.  One of their recommendations was to engage the services of two professional fundraisers, which we did on a part time basis.  Both were an absolute godsend who proved to be ever more useful as our project progressed.  The first was our Corporate Fundraiser, David Whittaker.  And the second was our Community Fundraiser, Lisa Chapman.

These two people had very different but highly complimentary roles.  Lisa was our front facing representative.  Through her small events and family support, she built an awareness of the charity in the community.  David’s role was to tap into donations from local businesses and grant providers.  This is made all the easier when the local community knows about the charity.

Our fundraising strategy was to work in partnership with other organisations committed to this work.  Among these were The National Autistic Society who would run and manage the service, once our work was completed.  We also later joined forces with Hereward Housing in Ely, who had the expertise to find a suitable site or even a property.

We had to start on a small scale and we simply began by running small events such as coffee mornings, and other social events among our friends and supporters.

Although these activities raised only a tiny amount of money, they began to raise awareness of autism and the need for adequate care and attention.  And so we began to build up more contacts who in turn would lead us to a range of organisations who could give us more sizeable financial help.

We started with great intentions.  But we grossly underestimated the time the fundraising would take.  We had thought it would take three years. But in the end, it took almost ten.

Because people with autism had been sectioned and removed from the community into mental institutions, few people had had direct experience of autism.  Good autism awareness was paramount.

Giving talks and explaining the condition of autism to potential donors.

It was an ambitious £1 million plan.  In the end, we raised £1.5 million.

Having raised sufficient funding, we were now ready to convert a derelict rectory into a home for twelve adults with autism.

Thirty new jobs would be created and at last, Cambridgeshire, the only county in the East Anglian region without a specialist centre for people with autism, was on the horizon.

The project was our brainchild. Hereward Housing Association were to be the landlords.  And the service would be run by the National Autistic Society.

But first we had to prepare the village of Stretham for this project.  Despite the fact that more and more people with autism were being located back into the community, few people really had a good understanding of what autism is. And how they should react to people who have this condition.  Indeed, there were many mis-founded fears.  I was anxious to reassure villagers about the level of supervision and care that would be given to residents.

So, we held a public meeting to explain exactly what we were proposing and allay any unjustified fears that local people may have had.

The plan was the complete the sale of the property from the Diocese of Ely by August 1997.  And start the conversion.  Our aim was to have the first residence moving in by 1998.

People asked us very searching questions.  For instance, will it be safe for our children if there are people with autism living in our community?

The meeting ended with a very strong contingent of people who were strongly in favour of our project.  We were absolutely delighted.

The Old Rectory is a Georgian Grade II listed building.  It had been empty for more than seven years and had suffered badly at the hands of vandals.

Royal visit and Jane Asher.