One big happy family at thriving Lancaster drop-in centre

A unit which gives help and support to people with neurological conditions is going from strength to strength, as Guardian reporter GAYLE ROUNCIVELL found out.

“It’s like coming home.”

Centre founder Sharon Jackson.

Centre founder Sharon Jackson.

“It’s like a big family.”

“We would be lost without it.”

These are just some of the comments which users of Lancaster’s Neuro Drop-In Centre have used to describe the facility.

They highlight the importance of the unit to so many people after being set up just four years ago.

Staff with the bus they are hoping to have carry the centre on its digital destination sign.

Staff with the bus they are hoping to have carry the centre on its digital destination sign.

The centre, which is based on the Lancaster Farms estate, was set up by multiple sclerosis sufferer Sharon Jackson in 2013 after she realised a unit encompassing a variety of neurological disorders was needed in the district.

Since then the centre has grown and now regularly sees up to 30 people a day through its doors.

County council funding for a new bus service which caters for the site, along with a new sign advertising its location after the original sign was removed, means Sharon is hopeful the centre’s popularity will continue to grow.

The centre is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10.30am until 2.30pm, and provides a range of services and support for people of all ages suffering from any neurological disorder including brain injuries, cerebral palsy, dementia, epilepsy, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or a stroke.

Marie and Bill Ginn- Bill is recovering following a stroke.

Marie and Bill Ginn- Bill is recovering following a stroke.

Visitors to the drop-in find a welcoming space where people can share their problems and offer their support to others, as well as take part in exercise classes designed specifically for their conditions.

There’s also a cafe and a charity shop which both contribute towards the charity’s vital fundraising effort.

“I was diagnosed with MS in 2001,” said Sharon. “I worked as a volunteer with a national charity supporting people with MS and I kept meeting people who either didn’t get any support or didn’t know where to look for support, so I came up with the idea for a drop-in centre.

“I knew that what was needed was something for all neurological problems. My instinct is that if it’s neurological we should all be in the same place.

Chatting in the dining room are Kelly Noon and Polly Hill from Shared Lives with regulars Conrad Pickvance and Graham McRae.

Chatting in the dining room are Kelly Noon and Polly Hill from Shared Lives with regulars Conrad Pickvance and Graham McRae.

“We have been here four years now and we are proving that it’s working because numbers are growing.

“I am worried that we won’t be able to cope with the increasing numbers. We are getting people from as far away as Lytham and South Lakes and Blackburn, because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

“People are looking for practical help. There’s nothing more galling than realising that your exercise has to be controlled. Your whole life changes. We have all the every day problems that others have but unfortunately when you have a chronic life condition people don’t really see you as having those kind of problems. You can’t be spontaneous, I can’t go to the sales in shops any more or just book a holiday.

“By being together we can give each other tips and advice. We are a community. When people start coming here they make friends.

“There’s no judgement here and no one has to explain themself; you can get tired of having to explain yourself to people sometimes but we all know about it here, it’s a bit like coming home.

“We get people who come here and they are absolutely desperate, but then they find that being here is like being a part of a large family.”

A physio session.

A physio session.

Visitors to the centre are quick to point out the important part it plays in their lives.

Graham McRae, 52, has been using the drop-in for the last 18 months.

“I had a brain haemorrhage three years ago which caused a stroke,” he said. “It’s hereditary, my grandmother and uncle both died from brain haemorrhages.

“I had been to see my brain specialist and there was a leaflet there about the centre, so I came up to have a look and I have been coming ever since.

“I do a dance and movement class, it’s given me a little bit of movement back.”

Carol Almond visits the centre with her mum Lil, who has dementia and Parkinson’s.

“We have met such a lot of people here that we would never have had the chance to meet, it’s made a big difference to us,” she said.

“I come for yoga and acupuncture; I have a benign brain tumour and problems with my knees.

“I also bring my mum for lunch. We have a good laugh and it’s a great support, everyone looks out for each other.

“It’s like a big family here, we would be lost without it.”

Meanwhile, former prison governor Bill Ginn, 78, was attending the unit for the first time with his wife Marie, 84.

Marie said: “Bill had his first stroke at 54 and he developed epilepsy as a result.

“He then had his second stroke in January. He has had to learn to eat again and hold a knife and fork.

“When he had his first stroke there was no help at all but this time we have had so much help. I have noticed a big difference from the last time. He is starting to get his confidence back.

“I have got nothing but praise for the help we’ve had.

“The Stroke Association told us about the drop-in centre and my daughter also works at Lancaster Farms and knew about it.

“We came down to see what was on offer; he will maybe try the physio because it’s something he can carry on at home.”

The centre offers therapy and a range of treatments as well as counselling where required.

Wendy Watson, a neurological physio from Neurocare, takes classes at the centre every week, helping clients with exercises based around stengthening, mobilising, core stability, balance work and the nervous system.

“They are ideal for someone who has had a stroke or brain injury,” she said.

“Everyone has a good laugh and really enjoys it while it’s doing them good.”

Melanie Brierley is a freelance dance artist and somatic movement educator, who also takes classes at the centre for people with a range of neurological conditions such as strokes, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s.

“It’s about supporting people’s health through dance and music,” she said.

“The social factor is important, and also the confidence it can bring.

“It gives people hope and belief that they can manage their own lives, and makes them feel positive and gives them confidence.”

All of the charity’s money comes from grant applications or fundraising.

While they pay a peppercorn rent of £1 a year to the prison for the centre, it still costs £750 a week to run and provide their services.

Events such as annual fun day Neurobury - this year being held on June 3 from 1-6pm – and a fashion show on May 4 help raise money towards the cost of running the centre. There’s also a charity shop at the site as well as online, and the bistro in the centre is open to visitors to Lancaster Farms and the general public.

The drop-in has five paid part-time members of staff and 25-30 volunteers, and also rely on the goodwill of local businesses who provide their services for free.

These include DMA Accountants, who do the charity’s accounts, and Hotfoot Design, who do all of their marketing and promotional work.

Sharon is hoping that a mini-refurbishment can be carried out when the centre closes for three weeks in August.

She has already enlisted the help of a local architects’ firm, who have offered to draw up some plans to create two new offices within the building.

This will give Sharon the ability to counsel people in private, as well as provide a new administration and reception area.

“I posted on social media that we were looking for somebody to help us,” Sharon said.

“All it needs is reconfiguring, it’s not a massive job.”

The centre is looking for any voluntary help they can get from services such as an electrician, plasterer, plumber, fitters and a joiner.

“We have been here for four years and I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” said Sharon. “The buses now run every half an hour which is a big help.”

The new bus service has been funded for 18 months by Lancashire County Council. The Highways department has also agreed to install a sign for the centre on the main road, after it was removed earlier this year when roadworks were taking place.

Sharon said: “It’s great that we have a bus service, and we need that bus to be used by people coming here so that it is kept on, but people won’t all know about the centre without the sign.”

Sharon’s hard work has been recognised by her being shortlisted in the Health Hero category of the Sunshine Awards, run by our sister paper The Visitor. She said: “I am delighted that Neuro DropIn and the work we do is being recognised in this way.

“We have also heard that we have been selected to benefit from the Co-op community fund; this means that from now until October all members of the Co-op can register their support for Neuro Drop-In and each time they shop one per cent of the sale is collected for our 
charity, which is great.”

For more information about the Neuro Drop-in, go to https://neurodropin.org.uk or https://www.facebook.com/neurodropincentre/ or call 01524 840762 or
simply drop in during opening hours.