Carrying the torch for those who can learn so much

Barrie Evason started Jennyruth Workshops in a converted pigsty at the bottom of his garden for his son. Now the charity is helping nearly 30 people with learning disabilities. Catherine Scott reports.

August 28 and 29 will be proud days for Barrie Evason. He will be accompanying his son Jonathan as he takes part in the 24-hour Paralympic torch relay from Stoke Mandeville to the Olympic Stadium.

For Barrie it is the culmination of more than 20 years dedicated to improving the lives of people with learning disabilities. For Jonathan, who has Down’s Syndrome, it is recognition of the fund-raising he has done over the years for Jennyruth Workshops, the charity founded by his parents.

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The occasion will be even more poignant as the Evasons were told when Jonathan was diagnosed at the age of 11 months to put their son in a home and let someone else look after him. “He will never learn anything,” said the doctor.

They clearly hadn’t banked on the determination of the 25-year-old teachers who dedicated the rest of their lives to helping their son, and other people with learning disabilities, achieve their full potential.

“It was the Sixties,” says Barrie. “There was a lot of ignorance and prejudice then. There weren’t even any schools. When Jonathan was five we asked the local authority where he would go to school. They said they didn’t educate children like him until they were seven. We were teachers and we knew that under the 1944 Education Act every child had the right to an education from the age of five.”

Then started a battle to get funding for Jonathan to attend a Steiner School in Aberdeen, which he eventually did. The Evasons left Yorkshire and bought a small croft on the Isle of Skye to be close to Jonathan and also with a view to giving him a purpose when he left school. They also had a daughter, Bryony, who doesn’t have the chromosomal abnormality and is now a teacher in New Zealand.

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One day Sue spotted an advertisement in the local newspaper for a little girl with Down’s Syndrome who needed a home.

“Sue said shall we adopt her? We were already collecting different animals on the croft so I said why not different children.”

The Evasons went on to adopt four more children with Down’s Syndrome – Bethany, Matthew, Rebeka and Ben after Jennyruth, who died when she was 10 months, but lives on in the workshops set up by her parents on their return to Yorkshire.

Barrie and Sue set up Jennyruth Workshops in 1989 after they were frustrated at the lack of opportunities for Jonathan.

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“I simply would not allow Jonathan’s ability to be wasted by what was being offered by the local authority – I knew that Jonathan was better than that,” says Barrie, who set about creating a woodwork workshop in what had once been a pigsty in the bottom of his garden in Marton cum Grafton, North Yorkshire.

Today, Jennyruth reflects none of its humble beginnings.

In 2004, the workshop, by which time had expanded to include metalwork, sewing, card making and other crafts, moved to a converted helicopter hanger on the Newby Hall estate which was officially opened by the Countess of Wessex.

Now it is a hive of activity as 28 adults with learning disabilities, six staff and countless volunteers create a true social enterprise making and selling a wide range of everyday products from wooden toys and games to bird tables and decorative plant pots.

It has grown from a small local business meeting the needs of a family of adults with learning disabilities into a productive workshop.

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Every person who works at Jennyruth is supported by the local authority, but Barrie explains that nowhere near covers the amount of money required for the business. The rest has to come from the fund-raising done by the local community, churches and fund-raisers like Jonathan.

“It would be super if we could make it pay its own way,” says Barrie who stepped down as chief executive five years ago. He and Sue are now involved in the fund-raising side, but talking to Barrie it is clear that his heart is, and always will be, in Jennyruth.

This year there has been a shortfall of £28,000 so although he and Jonathan had originally decided to take a year off from their long distance fund-raising walk they have decided to organise another event. But Jennyruth is not about making money. It is about giving self-esteem and confidence to some of the most vulnerable in society.

Barrie tells me the story of one young man who had travelled to the workshop from Leeds.

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“When he arrived he shuffled in and looked at his feet. He had no confidence in his ability, but he made some lovely Christmas cribs and I asked him to make me one. He was so proud of the work he can do. Everyone who knows him says he is a different person.”

Home is now quiet as all the Evasons’ children live together in a big supported Victorian house in the middle of Ripon.

“We are so proud of all of them,” Barrie said.

And he has plenty to be proud of. Especially when he sees his son holding the Olympic torch as it makes it was from the home of the Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville to the Olympic Park.

“I am really looking forward to it,” says Jonathan. “Not only will I be helping to carry the Paralympic flame to its destination, but I feel I am ‘carrying the torch’ for all my colleagues and friends who I work with at Jennyruth Workshops, and all people with learning disabilities, to let the world know that we can achieve many things if given the chance.”

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