“If you ask most people ‘what’s the most important thing to you?’ the majority will say relationships. Not being lonely makes a huge difference.” Sue Sharples, U-Night Group
The U-Night group is a Lancashire organisation that helps people with learning difficulties form lasting friendships and relationships. Through working alongside their service users, the group are looking to break down barriers and show the way forward in social care.
The U-Night group was established in Lytham St Annes in 2013, formed through the shared belief that helping people with learning difficulties build relationships was an under-valued part of existing approaches to support.
“We’re trying to stop people being lonely and help people make connections,” said the group’s co-founder and chairperson Sue Sharples.
“If you have a relationship or are just making more friends, you’re generally happier and can become more independent through the help of a good support network. It’s the same for everybody.”
Growing the group
The group began by hosting regular events and training courses, which give people a safe place to meet socially and offer the opportunity to learn more about sex and relationships. They then established the Meet ‘n’ Match dating agency in 2015 with a grant from the People’s Health Lottery; this allows service users to take the next step to an intimate relationship.
“People can be frightened of using online dating agencies, whereas this is a much safer way,” said Sue.
“People can join the agency and we match them with either friends or a partner. We go on the first date with them and after that we design a plan to continue the relationship if they want to.”
One of the agency’s first successes came in matching U-Night director Stephen Haywood with his partner Sarah Buckley, who have both flourished in their relationship.
Sue said: “This all started from Stephen’s idea twenty years ago. He ended up getting a relationship through it and wants everyone to have the same chance.”
The success of the dating agency is helped by the way that those entering relationships have been guided by the group’s training courses. These work to build the understanding of subjects that are often shied away from.
Service user and volunteer Lee Singh believes that the training has many benefits for everyone.
Lee said: “The course is for people with learning difficulties to come along and learn, but it’s for the staff and families as well to learn about how to be supportive of the service users.”
They have taken the training all around the county and even to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), broaching subjects that are not usually discussed.
Lee said: “The course is all about friendship and relationships. We talk about sex, people’s bodies, how to date and stay safe, but also it’s for building awareness about people with learning disabilities.”
The group believe that the active involvement of service users’ families and carers is vital to improving understanding of people’s wants and needs.
The group have also been advising other organisations on how to make their services better for people with learning disabilities.
Chairperson Sue said: “We spend time talking to people like doctors and care staff. They should all be aware that people with learning disabilities have as much right to have a relationship as anybody else.”
Those who engage with the group not only benefit from the expertise and empathy of the volunteers and staff; they also have the opportunity to attend and influence the various themed events that they host.
Volunteer and beneficiary Paul Stamper said: “We have various themes like James Bond night, 70s and 80s nights; whatever people are into. People have preferences of what they want to come to; they’ll say to the volunteers ‘let’s do such and such a night,’ and that encourages more people to come.
“Everyone’s able to have fun no matter what their background,” he added. “It brings a confidence out in people and brings them out of their shell.”
The group are currently looking for funding so they can continue and expand their services; their current agreement expires in May 2018. Sue hopes that their hard work in the county will be recognised and rewarded with the chance to do so.
“Lancashire is ahead of the game,” said Sue. “We’ve done more than we thought we’d achieve: we’ve linked in with a lot of different organisations; set up lots of different events; started an LGBT event; run the training courses; run the dating agency.
“We’ve gone out to the whole of the county and now have over 500 people with learning difficulties who we’ve engaged with over a small period.”
“We don’t want it to stop,” said Sue. “It’s still a starting point really – we’re hoping to carry it on and take it forward.”
Service user and volunteer Lee Singh is another that hopes that the U-Night group can continue to provide support for himself and others.
Lee said: “It’s helping us to find new friends and relationships, and learn how to go out in the community and be supportive of other people as well.
“These guys work hard at it and give their own time up. We’d just like to say thank you to them for putting it together and bringing people together.”
For enquiries about the U-Night Group and the Meet ‘n’ Match service, contact Lucy Hamlin on 07762 964728 or firstname.lastname@example.org