Feature: Unique charity provides vital schooling for disabled children

Feature on the Dame Vera Lynn Trust which supports kids under 5 with cerebral palsy and other physical difficulties and their families.''FL;  Dave Jones with son Dominic Jones and Sebastian Konrath with mun Juliet Konrath take part in a rhythem lead exercise session.

Feature on the Dame Vera Lynn Trust which supports kids under 5 with cerebral palsy and other physical difficulties and their families.''FL; Dave Jones with son Dominic Jones and Sebastian Konrath with mun Juliet Konrath take part in a rhythem lead exercise session.

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For more than two years, Juliet Konrath has relied on a little known charity - named after a renowned wartime sweetheart - to help with her disabled son Sebastian’s development.

Every week, the pair make the half hour drive from their home in Bury St Edmunds to the sleepy village of Sproughton to take advantage of the Dame Vera Lynn Trust - a unique school where children with physical impairments aged under five can learn alongside their parents.

It is the ideal environment for four-year-old Sebastian, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is forced to wear a splint on his leg as well as coping with a weak stiff hand.

Mrs Konrath said: “All activities are tailored to the needs of the child. He has particular difficulties with his right hand so they are tailored to use that hand to be able to move it, in the way he finds difficult, to strengthen it.

“The activities are fun and his face lights up when I say we’re coming here.”

The school, in Perry Barn, has helped hundreds of families since it was established in 2000 by the disability charity Scope to meet parental demand.

Teaching the national curriculum, it looks at developing a child’s physical skills from an educational rather than a medical perspective.

Alison Stonham, head of early years, says her remit covers ‘anything that causes a delay in the acquisition of a child’s physical skills’.

With the profoundly disabled, they look to increase the bond between parent and child.

Mrs Stonham says: “Some of these children won’t actually be able to make independent movements but they will have the intention - you will see a tightening of a muscle. We also work on basic communication skills like eye pointing.”

With more able children, the school helps them gain control of and use their limbs independently from reaching out and grasping objects to standing up.

Mrs Stonham explains: “Everything they learn here is transferable into everyday life, the home environment and other educational settings. We deliver it through intensive teaching in very small groups and part of the reason it’s so successful is because parents are involved with the learning.

“Everything is done rhythmically and there’s an element of music therapy used through the sessions. We’re teaching the parents how to hold their child to get them upright and that there’s a sequence in which children acquire skills.

“We look at what the child can or can’t do and we build on that. We look at the child before the disability and we encourage parents to do that aswell.

“The great thing is that children don’t realise they’re working - it’s all fun. Every single aspect of the session is meticulously planned to help them with their physical development.”

As staff help children overcome hurdles, the school itself has faced challenges after Scope withdrew its funding in 2002 and had to go it alone as a self sufficient independent charity.

Staff managed to raise the funds to keep the school open and in 2010 it joined the Dame Vera Lynn Trust, which runs a similar school in West Sussex.

It costs the school £7,500 per child per year to run the services, which are provided free of charge.

Tucked away in a rural location and with a title which can be misinterpreted, the school is always trying to raise its profile.

Sara White, the charity’s regional fund-raiser, says: “We need to raise awareness so people who fund-raise will think of us and want to fund-raise for us, which isn’t really happening as much as we would like at the moment because people don’t know we are here.

“The name Dame Vera Lynn Trust doesn’t really say what we do. Some people think it’s to do with war veterans.”

Dame Vera, the forces sweetheart, is president of the charity.

Mrs Stonham adds: “We’ve always had families that travel from the Bury St Edmunds area but I’m sure there are huge amounts of families who don’t know we exist.”

As Juliet Konrath returns to her school session with Sebastian, she beams: “I recommend it to other parents. We commit to coming quite a distance each week but it’s definitely worth that commitment.”

For further information about the charity or to fund-raise contact 01473 652880.