One of the many challenges that parents and carers of children with disabilities and/or special educational needs face is finding suitable places to take a break and go on holiday.
It can be very difficult to even plan a full family holiday due to concerns about whether the needs of the child can be met safely. In addition, worries around the levels of empathy shown by both the holiday venue staff and other guests can weigh heavy and that’s before all the potentially complicated travel arrangements are even made.
I became acutely aware of the struggles families encountered in booking holidays in my previous role as CEO at Columbus School and College. Parents would regularly talk about the difficulties they faced and often it would just be impossible to have a full family holiday because suitable and affordable places could not be found or simply did not exist. The sadness was that these families really needed the opportunity for a break because of the pressures they faced on a daily basis, and they desperately wanted to do this as a family unit.
While at Columbus I met Andy Mahoney who owned the company that provided the transport for the children to and from school. In his discussions with families he too had become aware of the challenges around family holidays and he had decided to do something about it. Andy asked if I would lend my support to a project he was working on to open a dedicated holiday centre for people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
He had located a derelict hotel in the hills above Faro in the Algarve, Portugal and thought it had the potential to be developed into a holiday centre specifically for people with special educational needs and their families. We started thinking about all the adaptations and changes that would have to be incorporated into the building. Andy formed a charity - 24x7 LTD - Centre Algarve’s special needs holiday trust - which was to provide the financial backing and ensure a secure legacy, although in reality the bulk of the funds came from Andy himself.
He also drew on his experience and business knowhow, along with some unconventional ideas about getting the project started (and finished!). Andy already had a house in Portugal and some very good friends based there as well. Two of them (Tom and Belinda), were estate agents and initially found the site. They gave up their own business interests to project manage the rebuild and their enthusiasm for the project was to set the tempo for the next four and half years.
When I say unconventional ideas, Andy was the inspiration behind involving volunteers from all over the world to support the project and lend their skills. We provided them with accommodation and food and they provided their expertise, knowledge and hard work. In total, just over 500 volunteers have helped develop the centre. Some stayed for a week or so and some for many months. A number of volunteers returned again and again to help with the next stage of development.
In the beginning a lot of the work was about ensuring utility supplies were in place and making sure that everything was structurally sound. We brought in Haverstock Associates; acclaimed architects from London with a dedication to supporting developments for people with SEN. Generously, they gave their time and services freely and also fundraised for us. They produced plans and sketches of the site and helped us to incorporate an education centre. Andy had many meetings with planners and officials to secure permissions for the developments.
Later on in the project we could think about décor and furnishings and I, of course, kept my mind focused on the necessary adaptations such as installing hoists and hygiene rooms and we installed a hoist into the pool. Additionally we had to consider levels, steps and wheelchair access; a colleague of mine came out to help us with health and safety audits to ensure that the necessary adaptations and standards were met.
A lot of time was spent on landscaping and developing the unique plants and trees, which make up the site. A raised garden was incorporated to ensure that every visitor could explore, enjoy and help in the gardens. Andy had a vision from the start that animals would be a part of the experience for all who visited and I remember a trip to a zoo one day to collect two eagle owls, which were being donated to the centre.
The most recent addition is a family of meerkats. It’s fair to say that Centre Algarve has been built on generosity, kindness and hard work!
So now we’re ready!
The two-acre Centre Algarve now consists of 14 rooms, two of which have en suite hygiene rooms that are fully hoisted with hygiene beds, showers etc. The Centre has a dining area, a lounge and sun area, education centre, American-themed diner, soft play/sensory room, swimming pool, paddling pool, and of course the animals and the grounds.
It is located just a kilometre from the small town of Moncarapacho and around 20 minutes from Faro airport, to which the budget airlines fly. Centre Algarve provides bed and breakfast with the accommodation and has contacts with a reputable company based at the airport for collection from, and transport back to, the airport. Any visiting families can be assured of a very warm welcome!
Any individual, family, school or organisation is welcome. We are happy to discuss the exact needs of any family or group visiting before they come so that we can ensure everything is set up and prepared.
But we are only at the beginning…
We had a soft opening in December and have had a fantastic response from visitors, including schools and groups. Feedback includes that this is, ‘The best holiday for the disabled we have been on,’ and ‘The Centre has helped the pupils develop social and independence skills…can’t wait to return,’ are amongst genuine comments already made in our visitors book.
With your help we can make it even better. If you are reading this as a parent, carer or friend who would benefit from the sort of service that the centre offers then please do get in touch.
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