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Irene, Nancy and Alison

irene and alisonIrene McLaughlin, Nancy Dickie and Alison Robertson are devoted mothers of sons who have learning disabilities. First becoming involved with their local Cumbernauld branch of ENABLE Scotland in the 1970s, they are now firm friends and lifelong members, bound by their memories of the highs and lows of the last 40 years. 

All three mums recall the significance of the support they received and how in turn, they were motivated to serve their branch and fight for the services which were so invaluable to their boys and themselves.

For Irene, the support she received from the branch could not have come at a better time. 

“I was told that my son Alistair wouldn’t live long when he was just five weeks old. It was an incredibly difficult time for me. We were constantly in and out of hospital and by the time he got to around a year and a half, my nerves were in bits.

“That’s when I knew I really needed support and company. My neighbour worked in the centre and she introduced me to it. It was my saviour.”

When she began attending the centre, Irene very quickly became passionate about maintaining the service and helping other parents and children.

“They had given me so much support and guidance that it felt very natural to become involved. I was secretary for a while but I always preferred to be hands on. It was hard work but, my goodness, we got so much out of it! Everything we did was out of pure love. We weren’t paid and we weren’t trained, but that didn’t stop us from doing anything we could to make the lives of the young people better.

“We had no money but we walked the streets appealing for it, held coffee days, crocheted, knitted and anything else we could do to raise the funds we needed. We were like family. My house was packed  with mothers. We’d all have tea and a wee sandwich and it was like a speakeasy - a space for people to get things off their chest and talk through things they maybe couldn’t say in front of their husbands or friends. That kind of companionship saved us  from feeling alone.” 

photo of nancy
Similarly for Nancy, the transition from attending the branch to becoming a fully-fledged administrative staff member was swift and natural.

“My son Colin started attending the centre when he was around six years old. It was wonderful to see him making new friends and joining in. 

“As a parent, I wanted to be involved and offer my support. I was invited to an annual general meeting and I remember someone saying to me before I went - ‘If you don’t want to be on the committee, don’t go to an AGM!’ Which makes perfect sense to me now because I went on to become the administrative secretary and I still attend the meetings all these years later.” 

Alison met Irene when her son Alan attended the same school as Alistair. It wasn’t long before she too became involved with the Cumbernauld branch as an active and dedicated committee member.

“I discovered the branch was fundraising for the provision of respite at Long Esther. Alan was attending and I wanted to help. I was secretary for a number of years. My husband Harry was also the branch chair at one point and he is now vice chair and secretary. 

“Everyone rallied round and that was wonderful to see. We were one big team and there was a real bond between us all. That’s what happens when you’re all driven by the same cause.”

That cause, for all at the Cumbernauld branch, was to provide the best possible care for members. When a gap in the services for young people aged over 18 was identified, the dedication and spirit of the committee members came into force. 

This brought about a monumental change that would shape the future of the service provision within ENABLE Scotland, with the opening of the first assisted-living houses for people who have learning disabilities.

Nancy’s son Colin was one of the original tenants in the first batch of houses which were opened in 1983 at Stonylee Road in Cumbernauld. 

“We believed that the provision of houses was important because as the young people got older, their parents did too and we wanted to secure a safe environment for their future where they would feel a sense of independence, but also be well looked after.

“Our branch was run by Sheena Walker who was the brains behind the operation. She went on to be awarded with an MBE for her services and deservedly so because none of it would have happened without her.”

Sheena had contacts within the council and fought tirelessly to obtain the housing. The branch was gifted with three properties by the Cumbernauld Development Corporation and Irene vividly recalls that while the process had its obstacles, the branch committee were dedicated to seeing it through.

“Oh, the fighting we did! Norman Dunning, who was then CEO of ENABLE, said that he’d never seen a branch like us. 

“We attended meetings with the council and were met by a lot of ignorant concerns about our young people living out in the community, but we pushed until we achieved what we had set out to and after the houses were opened, the neighbours in the area soon realised that they were a pleasure to live next to.” 

With the first houses successfully established, the branch switched their focus to expansion and within seven years, they had opened a further two sets of housing at Cragieburn Road and Rose Street. 

Irene’s son Alistair moved in to Cragieburn and she, along with many other branch parents, was delighted to see her son have an opportunity to flourish. 

“It was the best thing that ever happened to Alistair. He has always been independent and liked his own company, but each set of houses also had an adjoining conservatory so he could spend time socialising with other residents.

“s parents, it was easier to let them go out in the world knowing that they wouldn’t be isolated and that they were amongst friends, but also that they had 24 hour support if needed.”

Over the years, the original Cumbernauld housing model has altered. Through changes in practice and policy, it is now commonplace that each member is in an individual rather than shared house. With the additional issue of budget cuts in service hours, Nancy feels that although the new methods have worked well for some, they do not work so well for others.

“Colin does not have the amount of hours I feel he needs and as a result, he spends a lot of time on his own. I know that Nancy and Alison’s sons have lost hours through the cuts too and that it is a concern for them.

“The houses we established are still in operation, but with only one person in them rather than someone in each of the rooms and very few people have 24 hour support. In that respect, I feel that there is still a place for the set up that we had and it’s sad to see that dwindle.”

All three mums, now in their 70s, are proud to have given the Cumbernauld branch more than four decades of service.
Although they admit to ‘taking it easier,’ none of them plans to fully retire any time soon.

Added Alison: “We have always looked out for each other. It may have been hard at times, but it got us all involved. When our sons grew up and moved on, we kept at it because we’re dedicated. 

“Our experience of times past and the passion we have for people to have strong services, a good quality of life and a decent future has not just been for our own sons, it’s extended to all the people who need that support.” 

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