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​Jean Gardnerphoto of jean gardner in her kitchen

In 1968, at the age of 40, housewife Jean Gardner had raised her children and was settling in to a more relaxed way of life. 

That was until a friend informed her that he was planning to open a youth club for children with learning disabilities and enquired whether she would spare some time to help. Upon agreeing, she suddenly found herself become a founding member of ENABLE Scotland’s Falkirk Branch and the surrogate mother of 16 new ‘bairns’. 

“If I’m to be completely honest, I was quite scared the first time I met the children. Back then they were referred to as being mentally handicapped and I’d never met anyone like that before. I didn’t understand much about them and I didn’t know what to expect. It took time to get to know their different ways. The Down’s Syndrome children could be overbearing and they would run right at me for attention but they were just so loving! All they really wanted was kisses and cuddles. I felt I could give them that and after a few weeks, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my time.”

For the next 45 years Jean devoted her life to the club, taking the register, organising activities, helping in the kitchen and serving on the committee. She recalls with pride how it has grown, from its humble beginnings in Camelon Centre, to a lively hub of activity now based at Elgin Park with over 80 members coming through the doors each Wednesday night.  

“We had various little premises here and there but we always hoped to get something more suitable for the children. The old rifle range in Falkirk came up for sale and we wanted to get our hands on it so we got stuck in and started raising the money to buy it. We went onto the streets and to various football matches with tins, telling anyone who would listen what we were trying to do. People were kind and sometimes the tins overflowed so much that we had to fill our pockets too! We worked hard for that money but it was all worth it for the boys and girls.”

With their own centre established, the branch quickly got to work organising facilities and activities including craft tables, concerts, discos and even games of bowls outside on the grounds. Jean remained committed to making sure that the young people had everything they needed and she was not afraid to draft in additional support.

“Oh I made sure I got everyone involved! My husband Willie tended the grounds at the club for over 20 years and I even managed to get my neighbours to help. I did a lot of baking to raise funds for the club and I’d go round their doors selling cakes. I’d tell them all about what we were doing and they would kindly give extra money and hand in treats and biscuits for the children.”

Despite her dedication and effort, Jean never looked upon her role within the branch as ‘work’ and instead views it as having been a ‘pleasure and a privilege’. 

“Over the years I watched some of the young people grow up, some new people join and some sadly passed away, but one thing that never changed was how much they enjoyed coming to the club. They’d come running through the door, desperate to tell you all their wee stories and I just loved to listen. At the end of the day, that’s not hard to do. Many of them didn’t have family members who got involved and I sometimes felt heart-broken for them. When they came in and shouted ‘Where’s Jean?!’ I felt like they were all my bairns.”

Jean reluctantly retired from the club in June 2013 at the age of 86. Shortly afterwards, her 45 years voluntary service and her role as the Falkirk branch’s longest serving committee member was acknowledged with an invitation to the Royal Garden Party at Holyrood in July. 

“Well I was really honoured to have been asked to that. I took my granddaughter with me and we had a lovely time. I met Alex Salmond and I was delighted to hear that he knew all about ENABLE and supported the work we do.”

Even in her retirement, Jean firmly believes in raising awareness of the issues for people with learning disabilities and continues to advocate them by carrying her purple Enable shopping bag wherever she goes. She is often approached by people who firstly comment on its striking colour, before going on to ask what ENABLE is, to which she replies with a passionate description of the organisation and its cause. 

“I’ll always keep trying to get the message through to people because there is always work to be done. It still amazes me how much stigma there is around. There are days when I’ve been in town and seen one of our young people so I’ve stopped to have a blether and give them a cuddle. I’ve seen people stare at me when I’ve done that, as if it’s something odd. Sometimes I would say ‘You or someone in your family might be affected by disabilities one day’ and I’d just stare right back and cuddle them even more.” 

In spite of ongoing stigma, Jean feels the changes she has seen over the years are largely positive and she is particularly pleased to see the members have the freedom to actively join in their communities and enjoy a more independent lifestyle.

“When I was a young girl, our local minister had two Down’s syndrome boys and I can remember seeing them peering through the gate of their house. They never got out. I’m happy to see that it’s not like that anymore. They’re human beings like everyone else and they should be entitled to live their life. We even had a couple at the club who got married. They had their wedding at Elgin Park which I was invited to and I thought it was fantastic.”

Although Jean feels that she was not fit enough to carry on attending the club each week, she admits to deeply missing her ‘bairns’ and is determined to continue to support the club by attending events at the centre, including their traditional annual barbecue where she will of course be contributing batches of her infamous home-baking. 

“It has been wonderful to have one of the most rewarding experiences of my life with such wonderful people. There is just something about them that is so special and I can’t give that up completely!”

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