Sara and Ivana’s Story

Sara (31) started attending Activity Learning Hub (ALH) in September 2018, having moved to Sheffield in the July of that year from London and the year before that to England from Serbia. She now attends ALH 3 days a week and particularly enjoys art sessions. Ivana is her Mum.

Sara and Ivana moved to England in 2017 from Subotica in Northern Serbia, with Sara having spent most of her life before then in her birthplace Belgrade (she is bilingual in English and Serbian).

“We basically came because of Sara”, reflects her Mum Ivana, “Things in Serbia- there really was no progress and I wanted to focus on Sara’s future. I’d been working with a charity in Subotica on various projects- social enterprise and independent living, none of which functioned in Serbia. In the 10 years before we came over I had to try and work with other parents and with the Government on changing the care for people with learning disabilities. We achieved absolutely nothing in 10 years and I just realised we were running out of time, the results were miniscule and there was no support system or network.

“You have to start thinking about the fact that you’re not going to be around. You just have to face up to that and what’s going to happen. Basically Sara’s generation had no care to look forward to- they are left either in the care of relatives or if they have no relatives, in shelters for the homeless.

“So I always had in the back of my mind at least we can move (Ivana has sisters in London and Ireland, her mother was English) and we ended up in London. We were then offered a flat in Sheffield by a charity”.

Sara was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum when she was around 5 in Belgrade

“Very few people knew about Autism in Serbia. It’s different now, but at that time I was just extremely lucky that the psychologist a friend recommended was interested in autism. That was in some ways incredibly fortunate because Sara never would have received a diagnosis from the official route”.

Sara’s social worker had recommended Sheffield Mencap and Gateway.

“We were desperate”, remembers Ivana “because she’d always been going somewhere and had led quite a busy life, that was what we both found quite hard”.

“It was a bit tiring” adds Sara.

“When we moved to Sheffield”, Ivana reflects “those initial months were the most difficult for us and they saw a change in her behaviour for the worse. At one point I was wondering if it wouldn’t even work. It was very important that she was able to make that transition and to learn to be part of a group again. I think at Mencap you had a lot of understanding for her in the beginning- it lasted quite a long time that period of adaptation. I think that’s really very, very important for her behaviour and for her wellbeing as well.

“I think she was really happy. It was very nice to have some structure to her day again. Because we had done that same sort of move and waiting (for the support plan to be approved) a year ago in London, it was really nice that she was able to start. Both of us needed it”.

Sara remembers her first day at Norfolk Lodge in Chris Richards’ art group,

“I painted hearts. I like to paint hearts with Chris. I felt happy yes, I was excited”.

Ivana remembers that day clearly too and is hugely proud of Sara’s art work.    “I think probably what I remember best is meeting Chris. I was so impressed by Chris’s projects and even more, I was impressed with the fact that Sara was involved with them. She’d had absolutely no interest in art prior to that, absolutely none. I would never have dreamt that it would be possible.

“I think in some way, Sara has often in life needed a catalyst to do something. And she has just been very fortunate to meet Chris and Chris has been that catalyst. For instance, Sara learnt to read in Serbian but she would only ever read to one person and that wasn’t me. I think that without that catalyst, that would not necessarily have happened. We wouldn’t have known Sara that you were potentially an artist”.

Sara’s proud of her art too, “The best thing about Mencap is painting roses. I have a picture in my bedroom. It’s roses. I like roses me, they’re really good. I like red roses. And I like to paint pink roses and pink hearts. And I like to eat pink cake and pink strawberries. It means a lot to me, I like Mencap”.

“It’s a stable part of our lives” says Ivana, “because moving to a new place where you actually have no connections at all, it isn’t easy to build meaningful relationships. It’s actually been when you look at it, the most stable part of her life- the one stable thing in her life apart from me is Mencap and that is very important. That is part of her routine and part of her life. It means a lot. Really a lot”.

I ask Sara what coming to Mencap has changed for her.

“Everything. I’ve changed because I’m happier. I’m happy”.

Ivana smiles. “I think any organisation is really a reflection of the people who work in it. And I think that is probably what makes Mencap special and the place for Sara.

“It’s the people who work here. Because really- it’s not the building, it’s not the grounds, it’s not the other things; it’s the people who actually work and who care and who are willing to invest in the people who come here. I’d say that’s really the best part”.