“Some people haven’t seen another person in months”

Connecting people with learning disabilities, dating project Happily has been busier than ever throughout the pandemic.

Connecting people with learning disabilities, dating project Happily has been busier than ever throughout the pandemic. But it’s meeting a need that’s been pressing for years, says founder Helena Reed. Hammersmith United Charities has funded 10 memberships to support the project.

“My daughter has always felt ‘different to everyone else’, says Alison,* mother of Lucy,* who has a learning disability. “She went through months of non-stop crying – she was so down. It was very sad to see.” Lucy desperately wanted to meet new people and build relationships, but she didn’t have the confidence or skills – and didn’t know where to get help.

According to Helena Reed, founder of Happily, a Hammersmith-based dating and friendship project for people with learning disabilities and autism, new members often talk about this sense of helpless isolation. “Members often feel stuck between two worlds. They don’t want to be stuck in a box labelled ‘learning disabilities’. They just want to feel cool and have fun with their friends.”

Helena knows this first-hand. Her younger sister has learning disabilities, and growing up Helena tried to help her arrange dates and acted as a chaperone. “But it was really hard to find the right environment for my sister to meet people,” says Helena. “The mainstream dating apps just didn’t feel safe or appropriate, and there wasn’t anything tailored to people with a learning disability.”

It’s a common problem: over the age of 25, people with learning disabilities stop getting support from their local authority’s special educational needs system. Many finish college and find they are too old to access free services they had relied on for social interaction. The sudden loss of this network can be devastating.

With 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spending less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday, research suggests that people with a learning disability are also seven times as likely as their non-disabled peers to be lonely.

“Although there are some amazing charities in each borough supporting adults with learning disabilities,” says Helena, “it can be a small world. If you don’t fancy someone in your local group, you are quite stuck.”

Bringing Happily to life

Seeing a pressing need for something to connect vulnerable young adults – and with her little sister in mind – Helena took the plunge and launched Happily three years ago. The project creates a safe place for making new friends and starting relationships. The focus is on dating, but Happily believes that helping friendships along is just as important. The service operates across nine boroughs in west London, and free annual memberships have been funded for ten people by Hammersmith United Charities.

So how does it work? First of all, the Happily team get to know members, their family and support staff. They find out about the member’s hopes and interests, relationship history and support needs. Practicalities are considered in a social way, like understanding whether members can travel independently, manage money and read menus. Goals are set to revisit later on: “New members often feel nervous; many haven’t had relationships before,” says Helena, “so it’s all about working on confidence.”

After being matched with another like-minded member, they might go to a park or café with a chaperone – although during the pandemic these meetings are usually online. Afterwards, the process is managed by Happily, so no one shares phone numbers until they’ve both decided they want to meet again. “It’s a supported situation where people can have a good time,” says Helena. “It takes the pressure off. Our aim is to remove risk and make sure everyone is safe.”

“If a relationship does develop, we still keep in touch,” says Helena. “Adults with learning disabilities often need support to nurture relationships, and things can change. We help at each stage – with the struggles and the break ups. We’re there for all of it. And if relationships progress to being physical, we make sure they’ve got the right information at the right time,” she says.

For some people, sex education in school can feel like a distant memory. Happily explores this with members in an appropriate way, working with parents and support staff to enable healthy relationships. Collaborating with experts like SASH and Respond, they provide 1:1 support and workshops about sex and relationship, boundaries, consent and sexual health.

Connecting over lockdown

Covid-19 has changed the way Happily provides its services, but the need for human connection is greater than ever. It can be even more difficult for people with learning disabilities to know how to keep in touch when they can’t meet up in person.

“We’re checking in now more than ever,” says Helena. “In the first lockdown, we got in touch with a couple who had been together for a year. They just didn’t know what to do or how to connect. So we got them up and running on Zoom and helped them have a birthday celebration online, which got the ball rolling for them.”

“It’s difficult to reach people and get new members at the moment,” says Helena, “but we know how much need there is. When we do manage to connect with new people, they are desperate for contact. Some haven’t seen another person for months. So we try to link them up with online group socials as quickly as we can. It’s good for people to see some smiley, happy faces on the screen – so suddenly they aren’t sitting at home alone. There are people out there who can give support.”

Life beyond Happily

Happily has been life changing for Lucy. As Helena says: “Before she joined us, Lucy hadn’t really met new people and was very nervous. Through her new experiences her friendship group has grown so much. Now she’s had two relationships, and she’s been to the seaside with her friends. Her mum says that she’s is a different person, and that she’s so much more confident.”

It’s not always an easy journey. “It’s a rollercoster. You want to be there for members as much as possible, so you can get very emotional. If there is a break-up, I feel involved. But sometimes I cry with happiness. It’s such a nice feeling, when someone becomes more confident. I get very touched by the responses of family members,” says Helena.

“I try to take things day by day. But sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about what we’re trying to achieve with Happily. I just threw myself into the project without really considering the scale of what was involved. I was just thinking about my sister being lonely. But she isn’t now.”


Happily – free memberships available now

Happily has free memberships for people over 18 with a learning disability available, and is as active as ever over the pandemic. If you know of anyone the scheme may help, please share.

Happily is particularly keen to reach women with learning disabilities or autism, to keep the gender ratios equal. The team are also searching for LGBT+ members.

Happily supports people living in Brent, Ealing, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Richmond upon Thames, Wandsworth, Hounslow, Westminster and Harrow.

Contact hello@happilydating.co.uk for more information or sign up here

Find out more


*Names have been changed.

Hammersmith United Charities Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

In line with Government advice, Hammersmith United Charities has invoked our Business Continuity Plan and implemented a new operating model focussed on keeping the residents of our Almshouses, our team, contractors and partners safe and well during the Coronavirus pandemic. (more…)

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National Compost Week

15 - 21 March 2021

Composting is the recycling of plant and food waste material into decayed organic matter. This can then be used in various forms in the garden and when applied, enriches the soil and plant health.

This week a layer of garden compost has been added to the allotment plots at John Betts House garden, in preparation for the growing season ahead. This ties in with National Compost Week, a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the many benefits of using compost in our gardens. Please see some key tips below for reasons to compost in your garden:

  • The organic matter in compost is a source of food for the organisms in the soil.
  • The organic matter in compost opens up the soil, creating bigger gaps for air and water to move around – this is good for soil structure.
  • As the organic matter decomposes, it releases nutrients into the soil.
  • Adding a layer of mulch to beds, borders and allotments suppresses annual weeds and weakens perennial weeds.
  • Composting is an environmentally friendly process using organic materials.

Composting is recommended for most sized gardens, and can be done in a number of ways to accommodate the size of the garden. We highly recommend this gardening activity and have put together a list of websites that provide useful further information on how to compost:

Find out more about our sheltered housing

With award-winning communal gardens, our friendly and affordable sheltered housing helps residents live independently for as long as possible.

We have flats available now for older people from Hammersmith. Talk to us on 020 8600 0650 / 07733 842 574, email info@hamunitedcharities.com or read more here.

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Welcome to our latest newsletter

Welcome to the Spring edition of the Hammersmith United Charities newsletter - read on for some good stories from the heart of Hammersmith.

You’ll find out about the extraordinary work being done by the community organisations we’re funding; meet the people who live in our almshouses; and learn about the action we’re taking to create change in our community.

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Fundraising for our community

How you can support campaigns for local people in need, from our fundraising partner United in Hammersmith & Fulham

Tech4Kids in H&F: Finding laptops for 1,500 children

1,500 pupils in our borough have been identified as being in urgent need of computers or internet connectivity at home. United in Hammersmith & Fulham has partnered with Hammersmith & Fulham Council and local group Ready Tech Go to launch an ambitious appeal to get every one of them connected.

Whilst the coronavirus crisis has highlighted that many children and young people have been unable to participate in online schooling during periods of lockdown or isolation, they are also less likely to be able to catch up with missed lessons or to complete homework in ordinary times. It also means they are highly unlikely to develop the vital digital skills needed to prosper in later work and life.

We’re aiming to get 1,500 laptops and 500 data SIM card for internet access so all local children have a chance to thrive digitally. You or your organisation can give any amount today:

  • £1500 can ensure 10 of a school’s most disadvantaged pupils do not lose out on digital skills
  • £150 can get a quality laptop to a young person in need of catching up with classes and for homework
  • £20 can get an essential data sim card to a child struggling with internet access
Have any unused tech your organisation would like to donate?

We are also working with Ready Tech Go who collect, wipe, and share old laptops and tablet PCs to get them to Tech4Kids pupils that have been identified as in urgent need. If you are an individual or local company with spare quality digital devices, please contact team@unitedhf.org

Find out more about the laptop campaign

Pedal Back Cycling: Looking for referrals – free refurbished bikes available

The pandemic has made bikes more vital than ever. Many people can’t afford to reach places of employment or safely get to interviews. Or they might be finding it hard to motivate themselves to access outside spaces to boost their mental health and wellbeing. That is why we have partnered with Pedal Back Cycling, to offer professionally refurbished bikes to those in need.

If you are from a local community group working with those on low incomes, you can refer adults including but not limited to:

  • Key workers
  • Care staff
  • Refugees
  • Delivery cyclists
  • Those out of employment

We only accept referrals from non-profit groups working in the borough, and not from individuals.

Find out more about Pedal Back Cycling  

Winter Covid Appeal: Raising money to support the community

Many people still need support during the Covid-19 pandemic, including those going through mental health crises, suffering from loneliness and isolation, and at-risk children in need of educational support.

United in Hammersmith in Fulham has launched the H&F Winter Covid Appeal, in partnership with Hammersmith & Fulham Council, to continue to enable local individuals, businesses and foundations across the borough to support those most in need. 100% of funds raised will be donated to groups working with local people who face risk because of coronavirus this winter.

Donate to the Winter Covid Appeal


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January 2021 grants

We gave £120,000 to 18 local organisations in January 2021.

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