As part of a series exploring Big Local responses to COVID-19, our journalist-at-large Ryan Herman speaks to Zoe Cadman from Rudheath and Witton Together in Cheshire about the community network supporting the parents of children with disabilities.
Every Thursday at 10am, Piece by Piece meets at The Venue in Rudheath, Cheshire. Or at least it did until 23 March when Britain went into lockdown.
Piece by Piece is a SEND (Special Educational Needs Disabilities) group for parents, carers and their children that was founded by Rudheath and Witton Together Big Local chair Zoe Cadman.
The group is the focal point of their week, where everyone can talk openly about the challenges they face in raising a child with disabilities.
Listening to the parent carers who attend each week, they all say that before Piece by Piece existed they felt isolated, alone, were often struggling to cope, and had nobody else to turn to that was going through the same experience.
Even though they currently can’t meet face to face, if anything the group has become an even more important part of their lives during the lockdown.
It is hard enough when you’re suddenly faced with having to juggle parenting and teaching duties, but that challenge becomes even more profound when you’re raising a child with additional needs.
Zoe’s daughter, eight-year-old Olivia, has microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that means her head is smaller than other children of her age. She also has ADHD, autism, hypermobility and a mental age of four, as well as being doubly incontinent and has no self-care awareness.
From Monday to Friday she would usually be attending Hebden Green School in Winsford. As Zoe explains, “People don’t realise that for a child who has a special educational need this time for them is horrendous. They are children that generally attend special schools and will have rigid, set routines. So, their world has been turned upside down.”
Zoe adds, “I’ve been getting a maximum of 10 hours of sleep in a week. Olivia was up all day from 8am on Sunday and didn’t go to sleep until Tuesday morning at around 3am.
“I’m raising one child with special education needs and another one (Reginald, aged two and a half) who is advanced for his age in terms of his intelligence.
“It’s very difficult to feel grounded and obviously has thrown me into chaos.”
So, you could be forgiven for thinking that also being the chair of a community group right now would simply overwhelm Zoe. In fact, the opposite is true.
“It may sound corny, and some people might say ‘shut up you do-gooder’, but helping other people helps me. Three days a week I’m volunteering and I want to give people as much of my heart and soul as I can on those days.”
To give one example, Zoe says, “A local homeless refuge has 34 beds for people who either have issues relating to mental health or drug addiction. We became aware that the company producing their meals could no longer provide that service.”
Eventually, she contacted Bruschetta, a local restaurant that might have otherwise struggled to survive this crisis and is now providing 34 cooked meals from Monday to Friday, funded by RWT.
She adds, “Our local sewing group is known as ‘The Real Housewives of RWT’, and now includes members of Piece by Piece. They are part of the For Love of Scrubs – Our NHS Needs You’ Facebook Group and have been making scrubs for our local hospitals and healthcare workers as well as scrub bags that can be thrown in the wash and prevents cross-contamination. Now we’re about to make masks for our volunteers.
“The sewing group is also doing Zoom meetings and we’re trying to make sure the different groups we work with are talking to each other, so people feel connected.”
Zoe moved to Rudheath eight years ago and found out about RWT after a local girl had taken her own life and RWT helped to organise a fundraising walk for her family, which is where she met community engagement officer Katy Sneyd.
Katie encouraged Zoe to get in touch with Cheshire Buddies, a charity that supports children and young people with disabilities and provides the funding for Piece by Piece.
“The reason I set up my Piece By Piece group was that I was at a point where, in truth, I didn’t know if there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I was sinking. I was new to the area and I’d just been told that Olivia had SEND needs, which is something I knew, but when it was confirmed it still really hit me.
“It took me four years for Olivia to be acknowledged as requiring special educational needs and everybody said ‘we failed you, we’re so sorry.’”
“The first time she left home to get on the school bus I suddenly shut the door behind me and I didn’t have to fight anymore. But then what happens next? What is your purpose? I live on the road which is used a cut through to the local school, and I could see the children and parent carers walking to school together. I craved that.
“I felt if I didn’t do something, well… I don’t know if I would be here today.”
“Even though I’ve got the kids, I’ve got a partner, I’ve got a home and a garden, Piece by Piece gives me a reason, it gives me that purpose to be able to help someone and make sure they never feel how I felt. And that also really helps me.
“Right now, we do our weekly session on Messenger. We also chat on the phone, we cry, and then I’ll get a message after that call to say ‘thank you, I’m alright now’. That’s so important to me.
“The group on Facebook has 100 members. The Thursday group has around 15 to 20 members. Some bring their kids because they either not at school or they are severely handicapped. But everyone gets it, everyone understands what somebody else is feeling.”
RWT is also working with other groups to form a coordinated community response that can reach out to those who need the most support right now.
“We’ve also come together with Northwich Isolation Group, which is Northwich In Need, Cheshire Without Abuse, Save A Life Cheshire and Northwich Baby Bank, because there has been a massive rise in cases of abuse and family issues. We have created a Rudheath and Witton COVID-19 page so people can reach out to us if they need help or support or need somebody to talk to. And we will continue working together after this crisis is over.”
Zoe couldn’t possibly achieve any of this without her team at RWT, which consists of Project Manager Heidi Bibby, Events and Community Engagement Officer. Lesley Moore.
They work together with Local Councillor Helen Treeby, and the aforementioned local organisations as well as Tim McGreavy who is the Pastor at Bethel Church, Northwich.
“It’s made more people aware of who RWT are. We’ve seen this community go back to that old tradition of people looking for out each other and feeling part of something.”
That community spirit was in evidence after one of the RWT partnership members posted on Facebook that Olivia’s eighth birthday party would have to be cancelled.
To make up for the obvious disappointment a succession of friends, neighbours and members of the COVID-19 support group knocked on her door and left a present outside. Officers from Northwich Police also delivered a present and a card signed by everybody at the station.
Every time somebody knocked on the door, Olivia would come running out saying ‘what’s in the box?’
It serves as another reminder about how that first meeting with Katy marked a turning point for Zoe and her family and community that has become her extended family along with the Piece by Piece group.
“When I first talked to Big Local I was a quivering wreck, who used to burst into tears all the time. Then I joined the RWT partnership. From that I became vice-chair, then I set up Piece by Piece, then I became chair. I’ve created a really good life here. I’m in the best place I can be.”