'˜I never thought I'd be the founder of a charity'
'I am just an ordinary '¨person.'
Sharon Jackson may believe this to be true, but there are numerous others who feel very differently, after she set up a charity aimed at helping to support people with neurological conditions.
And many of those grateful people repaid some of their thanks by voting for her as their Health Hero in the Visitor’s Sunshine Awards earlier this year.
Sharon launched the Neuro Drop In Centre in Lancaster four years ago, and despite being a charity run largely by volunteers, its growing success has seen it now offered as a referral by medical professionals.
Sharon, who herself has multiple sclerosis (MS), founded the group after seeing how little support there was for those diagnosed with neurological conditions.
“I had been working as a volunteer with the national MS charity and I was fortunate at that time to meet people with other neurological conditions,” she said.
“It just seemed natural to me what was needed because we were splitting neurological conditions into groups when instead you could all get together and support each other.
“At the end of the day we are all in the same boat; the brain is affected and we all share the same symptoms. I thought we could all support each other.”
Sharon was told she had MS when she was 42.
Nearly 17 years on, she admits it turned her life upside down.
She had been to Lancaster University as a mature student and at the time was working at Reebok, where she had progressed to become business development manager.
She left work a year after her MS was diagnosed.
“I felt like everybody else when I was first diagnosed,” she said. “It changed my life completely. I was ambitious and I wanted to achieve things in my life.
“It took me a long time to find myself again.
“Now I realise that what matters is being happy and with your family and friends and I am very lucky. I have got an amazing family and now I have got this extra family who are there to support me as much as I support them.
“I would never have thought that I would be the founder of a charity. I truly did it because I could see that it was needed. It was a no-brainer. It had an unexpected effect on me because I don’t think about my own illness. I am genuinely moved by meeting young people and the terrible illnesses they have to live with.”
Sharon, who lives in Lancaster with her husband Graham, says she feels “very lucky”.
“I never imagined we would be in a centre like this that’s sustained itself over four years,” she said.
“It’s growing all the time. We are now getting referrals from the medical profession, we are working with the universities, we are getting so much support and that’s brilliant.
“For the people that come here, this is a lifeline for them and in a way it’s a lifeline for me too.
“Although it’s worrying and scary and I am constantly thinking about where the money will come from for the centre, we always find it.”
The drop-in centre, based next to HMP Lancaster Farms, gives people and their families somewhere to share experiences, as well as offering exercise classes to help ease their conditions.
“With a neurological condition the outcome is usually for life,” Sharon said. “It’s about making the most of the life you have got after what I like to call a ‘cerebral mugging’.
“We are learning to support people from diagnosis through living with the condition and with their families to support them to the end.
“The thing we have always put first is the most important thing and that’s the people who come through the doors; they know we are here to help them.
“People don’t come to us because we are a centre. They come because it’s an extension of home.
“There might only be 25-30 people here each day but that’s a lot of people who might otherwise be sitting at home alone. I meet people all the time who tell me they are lonely and living with their condition alone.
“We can’t cure anybody. We are just offering people a solution to help get them through what can be days full of chronic pain and isolation and loneliness, and not just them but their families too.
“There is a bright side. You just have to find it.”
Sharon, who has a son and two young grandsons, says her nomination for a Sunshine Award was a very pleasant surprise.
“Being nominated for the award in the first place was strange and I was really quite shocked,” she said. “I didn’t feel worthy of it. I felt like I shouldn’t be getting an award because I was only doing what was necessary; I just felt like I could make something happen.
“It was lovely when people kept telling me they had voted for me.
“I realised it was wonderful for the charity because it’s a prestigious award and it means something because it’s from the people who know who I am.
“That says a lot because it demonstrates that people value what we are doing here and it shows that it’s all worthwhile.
“I was able to go to the event with the whole team. My name may be on the centre but I need a great team behind me because I cannot run it on my own, and some of those people have been with me since I had the idea for the charity in 2008.
“I am so grateful for the staff and volunteers that we have got.
“It was a lovely night. Going to a glamorous event isn’t something I get to do very often. My team was screaming and shouting and jumping up and down. They felt like they had won as well, which was really nice.
“I was very honoured to be in the same category as the people I was with. I am not a health professional but they were so gracious and telling me they were glad I had won, which was lovely.
“We are not competing with the NHS or doctors, we are supporting their work.
“We have since had people telling us that they saw us in the paper and that’s how they heard about us.”
The Neuro Drop In Centre costs around £40,000 each year to run, including the services provided and wages for the few paid staff.
“Sometimes I worry about all the things that need doing,” said Sharon, who grew up on the Ridge estate and went to the former Castle School, now Central Lancaster High School. “But we have proved that we are sustainable. I want the place to continue long after I have gone. I want to leave a legacy.”