SensationALL evolved from the closure of the Raeden Centre (a facility for children with complex needs in Aberdeen) in the Summer of 2011, which resulted in a collection of unused sensory and soft play equipment.
Not wishing to see these resources go to waste, a few parents and professionals came together with the vision to give people with disabilities a place to belong, where they can feel empowered, safe and supported throughout their lives. A place where they could access specialist support in a fun and friendly, tailored environment.
We saw a gap in existing local provision, for families to have the opportunity to enjoy leisure activities together. Many mainstream facilities cannot accommodate an individual with multiple support needs; accessibility can be problematic, inclusion of siblings difficult and environments too busy, loud and generally overwhelming to someone with sensory issues.
Upon learning of our vision, Westdyke Community Football Club kindly offered us the opportunity to rent a room in the Lawsondale Sports Pavillion, where we began to run family support sessions. The feedback from the attendees was overwhelmingly positive, so we decided to take the plunge and became a registered Scottish charity in 2012.
As demand for our services grew, we built upon this success to deliver training workshops, run preschool and adult activity groups, and accommodate ASN class visits. We created a sensory room from a broom cupboard, and ran our back-office from the corridor. Initially, all of our activities were run by volunteers – both parents and professionals – until 2013, when we employed our first members of staff.
Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength. Last year we had more than 2000 participants at our various groups, activities and courses.
During this time of development, our fairly informal charity committee evolved into an organised Board of Trustees. With a mix of business and philanthropic expertise behind us, we felt a new confidence in our potential as an organisation.
However, the need for a more permanent home for SensationALL was clear. Books, files and toys began to line the walls as we outgrew the space at Lawsondale. Our staff and volunteer numbers had increased, as had our requirement for office space. Aside from the space limitations, not having our own premises also restricted our funding options and therefore our future sustainability and growth.
An opportunity arose to apply for the Community Asset Transfer (CAT) of a building owned by Aberdeenshire Council, called the Old School and Schoolhouse. Westhill was a new town constructed in the late 1960’s, so the Schoolhouse is one of its few historic buildings and much-loved by the community. It has been underused for many years, and would have been earmarked for development had we not made an application.
It took us a year and a half to produce a feasibility study and business plan that satisfied the council’s requirements, but we were delighted, in August 2016, when we were successful in our application (the highest-value CAT in Aberdeenshire to date). We are now in the process of negotiating a 175 year lease, which will incur an annual rent of £1.
This was truly a landmark achievement for SensationALL, and a significant milestone in our journey as a charitable organisation. But there was no time to rest on our laurels…
In the period between our initial CAT application and the successful outcome, we began renting space within the Old Schoolhouse from the council, to accommodate our ever-expanding range of groups and services. We are now fully moved into the building, and have returned the function room at Lawsondale to the football team, with gratitude for their long-standing hospitality.
With the additional space, we have seen further growth in our staff team to 5 core, part-time posts (3 of which are qualified Occupational Therapists), plus a number of flexible Support Worker posts. Involvement from volunteers remains essential to manage all that we do; we are lucky to have a pool of around 40 regular volunteers, including therapists, parents and motivated individuals of all generations.
We have also begun making improvements to the building, such as the installation of a spacious disabled toilet with an adjustable changing table, improved storage facilities and a new doorway between the School and Schoolhouse buildings. Whilst these changes will be relatively minor until we are the official custodians of the Old Schoolhouse, they ensure that our users have a safe and comfortable experience, and that the building is fit for purpose.
But this is only the beginning…we have big plans to transform the building into a state-of-the-art facility for MSN families and the local community. A truly inclusive facility for all abilities, and a home for our organisation for many years to come.