Introducing Our New CEO
Plymouth-based Friends and Families of Special Children has announced big plans for the future, following the appointment of the charity’s first ever CEO.
Tim Tod will be leading the organisation through a period of growth over the next five years, with new activities and projects being developed alongside the existing services that already support over 1,700 families in the Plymouth and surrounding areas.
Tim has decades of experience in this field, having been Chief Executive of the countywide Young Devon charity for 20 years. His arrival means that Kay O’Shaughnessy, founder and driving force behind the charity since 2002, can devote more time on her role as charity ambassador and to campaign on important issues: “Now is the perfect time to bring Tim in, as we bounce back bigger and better following the challenging year that we’ve all had,” explained Kay, who remains Chair of Trustees.
“The past year has given us the opportunity to reflect and look at how we can increase our engagement with local communities. Appointing a CEO is a big step, but it is essential if we are to move forward. Tim’s leadership brings a real injection of energy, optimism and fresh new ideas as we look to reach even more families.”
The charity, based at the Virginia House Centre, supports families with disabled children and young adults up to the age of 25. Services include specially catered activities, advice and information, and training workshops. It also has a Fun and Freedom Club for young carers and a sensory room for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
Tim is relishing the prospect of working with the families in the coming months to hear what their needs are: “We make no assumptions about our families’ priorities because they all have their own unique circumstances,” said Tim. “We will take time to listen carefully to what they have to say – they are 100% centre stage in helping us develop our plans going forward.”
As well as enhancing the charity’s activities and services, Tim is also keen for the charity to have a more proactive role as influencers for change: “As Chief Executive at Young Devon, my job was to affect change to improve the lives of children and young people, to help them get fair treatment, and to remove barriers to success. There are obvious parallels between that role and my role here at Friends and Families of Special Children.
“The children and young people of families that we support have the same hopes, anxieties and aspirations, and it’s about helping them to achieve those aspirations. We have to reduce the imbalances. I feel very strongly about this because you shouldn’t have to fight for quality of life just because you have a disability or additional needs. So I will be adding the voice of our families in conversations about services for children and young people with disabilities. Currently, there is not enough connectivity in provision. Adding their voices will make it easier for local authorities to take action that includes all in a truly meaningful way.”
The most pressing task facing Friends and Families right now is opening up the activities again, post-COVID. The charity has just taken on a new Activities and Projects Co-ordinator and a Family Support Worker in readiness.
Kay said: “These have been really tough times for everybody, but particularly for families of children with disabilities. A lot of the usual support and respite services have been unavailable, which has added to their feelings of isolation. Many are physically and mentally exhausted. I’m very proud that as a team, we’ve delivered support throughout lockdown. But it’s the face-to-face fun activities that are so desperately needed, the socialising and the peer support, especially for our young carers who have been under extreme pressure.
“There is still a lot of anxiety for our families, as we come out of lockdown,” she added. “Many of our children have been shielding for 16 months. For someone who has a family member who is acutely vulnerable, life is still frightening. The road out of lockdown is not as straightforward for those with vulnerable health conditions. Many are genuinely fearful about the risks that still exist. So, whilst our ambition is to kick-start face-to-face sessions as soon as possible, we realise not all families will feel comfortable joining in. We must be mindful of this and will do our upmost to support them and make them feel included and not forgotten.”
The charity’s support groups will also be back as quickly as possible, although some of the sessions will continue online. In fact, the online support during the pandemic has enabled the charity to reach more people – and not just in the Plymouth area. Kay explained: “During the past year, we have seen an increase in the number of parents and carers wanting mental and moral support, and we’ve had a record number of parents seeking practical help with completing forms. We’ve even had families from other parts of the country accessing our services online, so we are plugging a gap that’s not local, but national.”
When Kay founded Friends and Families of Special Children, it was because she was frustrated with the lack of provision for her daughter. It was her own experiences that underpinned the charity’s ethos which, says Kay, is “totally unique” and won’t change with Tim’s arrival: “Most families with disabled children feel like they are square pegs being expected to fit into round holes. I’ve been fighting this myself for 23 years. Society and many service providers tell us we have to conform and fit to what’s on offer. But at Friends and Families, you don’t have to overcome that.”
“We have a holistic approach. We are here from the time our children are very young, right up until they become young adults. It means our families go on a journey with us, they have a continuity that they don’t get elsewhere. They’re not constantly being asked to be square pegs in round holes.”
“As we grow, we can promise our families that we won’t lose this ‘Families First’ ethos. That will never change. We exist to support their needs and wishes, and we do nothing without consulting them first. What we do, we will continue to do well. But we can also identify new things we can do to help.”
And she said: “It’s something to celebrate really, that what started from chatting with other frustrated parents is now supporting 1,700 families. Tim’s appointment is just the start of an exciting next chapter. Watch this space!”