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​Harry Smith 

photo of harry smith, member of enable scotlandHarry Smith is a modest man. He doesn’t see anything extraordinary about the fact that he was ahead of his time when he set up a club for children with learning disabilities in Lanark in 1952 - two years before the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped was even established. 

Nor does he find it commendable that at the age of 97, he still chairs the branch from the comfort of his own living-room because his physical disabilities have made it difficult to venture out.

As the father of a son with Down’s Syndrome, Harry readily admits that he was emotionally invested right from the start. 

“My Donald could be a wee handful! There wasn’t really anyone to talk to or get advice from because our issues were different to those that most other parents had with their children.

“I worried about Donald. Knowing that your child is different doesn’t stop you wanting them to do the things that other children do and I wanted the best for him. To see him running around happy and playing with other kids was something that I longed for.”

When Donald was around three years old, Harry noticed that there were one or two other parents with children like him in the town. He began to wonder whether they felt the same and how they coped. Eventually, he decided to approach them and asked what they thought about meeting up so that the children could play together. 

“I managed to secure a small room above the Co-operative building in the Main Street. Word got around and within a couple of weeks there were 10 children attending. It was wonderful to see them all together. 

“At that time, we had very little and could only play skittles with them, but they loved to join in and see one another. The parents began to open up too and share their stories over tea and coffee. It was clear that we were all benefiting from spending time together.”

As a man renowned for being passionate about people and typically pro-active, Harry also sat on the local council, both as a councillor and as provost. 

When the Lanark club began to grow, he strategically used his contacts and influence within the council to ensure that the service would be developed and expanded to meet the needs of those who used it. 

“When I think about it now, I shamelessly promoted that wee club and the work of ENABLE Scotland within the council! I wasn’t daft and I knew that there were people there who had the power to help us. 

“I spoke to anyone who would listen about who we were, what we were doing and why it was so important to provide a service - not just for the kids, but for adults too. I pushed for grants and funding, and eventually managed to muster up enough support to secure some ex-sheltered housing, which we converted into our first official day centre in the early 1960s.”

The centre catered for around 45 people, but within 15 years its numbers had more than doubled, prompting Harry to approach his council colleagues once again to put forward a case for larger premises. They responded to Harry’s relentless campaigning and a new centre for up to 100 people was built in the early 1970s. 

Devoted to both the centre and the club, Harry continued to dedicate his time to the members throughout the years, organising discos, outings and activities. Despite his commendable efforts, he chose to see his role as ‘just going along and acting daft to make them laugh’.

It wasn’t until the social work commissioned the construction of a new purpose-built state of the art day centre in 2009, that Harry’s realisation of how his contributions had been received would coincide with his ‘greatest privilege in life’.  

“A couple of my councillor friends approached me and asked how I would feel about the new building being called The Harry Smith Complex. I couldn’t believe it, it was such an honour.

“It’s a sight to behold. There is an arts room, a training kitchen, a dance studio - you name it, they have it. It’s amazing to think it all began with skittles in a pokey wee room.”

Taking a characteristically humble approach to his legacy, Harry explained his greatest pleasure comes from knowing the lives of people with learning disabilities are more fulfilled.

“Attending the club and centre helped Donald and others grow into confident, outgoing and most importantly, happy individuals. I shudder to think how different their futures could have been if they had been stuck in the house, isolated and ostracised.”

Harry’s commitment to the branch has never waned and despite being physically unable to attend the centre and club, he states that due to a concerning lack of voluntary staff, he continues to fulfil his chairman duties from home. 

“The branch is currently run by myself, the treasurer and the secretary and those are two ladies are in their 70s. We can’t retire because there is no-one to take over from us and that is a real worry to me and a threat to the service.

“We’ve appealed for volunteers many times over the years and had little or no response. Many parents don’t realise that the facilities don’t just need to be established, they need to be maintained too. It’s never a case of job done, put your feet up.” 

For 62 years, Harry has undertaken his duties without an expectation of recognition. Initially inspired to create a better future for Donald, he has never lost his enthusiasm for creating a better life for people with learning disabilities.

“These services give their members a new lease of life. They may not have the skills to do a lot of things, but they at least deserve an opportunity to have some of the basic pleasures in life that others do. That is fundamentally important and it needs to be preserved.

“I’ll never be able to turn my back on that. It has, and always will be, a labour of love.”

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