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“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

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*Names have been changed.

Opening our doors to older people in need of a home

We're inviting older people on a low income who need an affordable new home to tour our almshouses.

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We’re looking for a new Grants and Communication Officer

We have a terrific opportunity for someone at the early stages of, or looking to begin, their career in grant making. Find out more about our Grants and Communication Officer role here.

Location Based at Sycamore House (W6 0AS) with frequent visits to other HUC locations and grant holders (all in Hammersmith)
Salary: £28k – £34.5k (pro rata) depending on experience
Contract: 22.5 hours per week (3 days), Permanent
Reporting to: Head of Grants and Community
Benefits: 28 days annual leave plus bank holidays (pro-rata), Up to 8% employer contribution to pension, Health cash plan on completion of probation

The opportunity

This is a terrific opportunity for someone at the early stages of, or looking to begin, their career in grant making.

Key activities involve supporting the management of the grants programme, contributing to raising the profile of the organisation and the impact of our grant holders, and
maintaining the grants database.

Hammersmith United Charities is part of our community, and it is important that the Grants and Community team are in touch with what is happening in Hammersmith and the rest of our small team. This involves frequent visits to grant holders, partners or networking meetings as well as hands on involvement with the life of the Almshouses.

About you

We are seeking an individual who is passionate about community, loves working with people, is flexible and thrives in a changing environment, genuinely enjoys administration and takes pride in excellent attention to detail.

We particularly welcome applications from people with a strong connection to Hammersmith and Fulham.

Purpose of the role

To provide support to all aspects of the Charity’s grants and community work including:

  • Grants administration
  • Database, website and social media management
  • Supporting prospective and current grant holders
  • Helping promote the work of the Charity and that of our grant holders

Download the detailed Job Description here

Application process

We are committed to our team reflecting the diversity of the communities we work with and welcome applications from people of all ages, sexual orientations, genders,
ethnicities, nationalities, religions and beliefs.

If you are excited by the role but aren’t sure if you have the right experience then we’d still love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact Paul, our Head of Grants and Community, for an informal chat by emailing paul.robson@hamunitedcharities.com to arrange a call.

To apply, please send us written answers to the following questions using a maximum of 600 words in total OR answer the questions in a video of up to 5 minutes.

  1. Tell us why you want this job and why you want to work for Hammersmith United Charities
  2. Tell us about your skills and experience and how they are a good fit for the role

Please email your written answers or video to officeadmin@hamunitedcharities.com no later than midday on Tuesday 21 November 2023, shortlisting will take place that week.

First round interviews will be held online on 29th or 30th November

Second round interviews will be in person at Sycamore House, W6 0AS on Wednesday 6th or Thursday7 th December. A presentation may be required at final interview.

These dates may be subject to change and applicants will be advised in advance should this happen.

To be appointed to this role you must be eligible to work in the UK, undertake an enhanced DBS check and provide satisfactory references. We will follow up on this later in the process.

By submitting your application, you are consenting to the processing and storage of your personal data in order that you can progress through our recruitment and management process. We will never sell your data however we are obliged by law to inform you that should we be required to we may share your data with external agencies. This may include but is not limited to CareCheck (a service for managing and processing Disclosure & Barring Service clearance applications) and our HR Advisors. We will also contact those individuals you name as your referees to confirm your suitability for the role you are applying for. Your data will only be used for your role and to comply with our statutory and legal obligations. If your application is unsuccessful, we will retain your information for 6 months; after this date it will be safely destroyed. If your application is successful, we will retain your information for the duration of your commitment and up to 6 years after you cease employment.

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In pictures: out and about

Our team took part in the Wormholt & White City Community Festival in September, which celebrated our vibrant community.

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5 minutes with…Our community gardeners

Meet our community gardeners, India and Lucy, who nurture the award-winning green spaces at our almshouses.

What do you both do and why do you enjoy it?

We are the community gardeners for Hammersmith United Charities’ two sheltered housing schemes (almshouses), John Betts House and Sycamore House.

The gardens are an unexpected highlight at both almshouses. Visitor, residents and staff alike often comment on the beautiful surprise of the gardens as they discover them for the first time.

We manage, maintain and improve the gardens while also providing activities and workshops for residents. A big part of our role is to encourage the residents to use the gardens, and advise and support them with their own plots and pots displays.

At both the almshouses, we love the diversity of personalities, activities and events – and how each day is different from the last. The kindness of the residents to the staff and each other is a daily joy.

How would you describe the gardens?

The gardens provide a space for all residents to enjoy in a variety of ways. Groups of residents meet in the gardens for a chat and a cup of tea, others sit alone and immerse themselves in the sounds and sights of nature, or simply read a paper or have a chat on the phone.  Some residents get their daily exercise by doing laps of the gardens, while many residents have their own small plots and pots, getting involved in the practical nature of gardening, planting, watering and weeding.

Currently residents are preparing for spring by planting bulbs in pots and looking forward to the next growing season following the dark and quiet winter months.

How do the residents help you with the gardens?

We work closely with the residents and many of them assist us in maintaining the gardens by watering and weeding, sweeping paths, leaf clearance and dead heading the beautiful roses.  We appreciate all the work the residents do and could not maintain these award-winning gardens without them.

What are some important gardening jobs you’ll be doing as we head into the autumn and winter?

Seasonal jobs include leaf clearance and ensuring all pathways are safe, bulb planting and compost turning. We manage all our green waste so that it returns to the gardens for the health of the plants and trees. We are currently preparing areas in both gardens to create wildflower meadows for next summer.

What is your favourite local green space to visit and why?

India has recently introduced Lucy to W6 Garden Centre on the edge of Ravenscourt Park.  It is a beautiful oasis of indoor and outdoor plants, garden supplies and has a gorgeous cafe. Many of our residents enjoy it too!

Find out more 


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Almshouse living may boost life expectancy by up to 2.5 years

New research from Bayes Business School has found that many almshouse residents receive a “longevity boost”.

On average, the lower a person’s socioeconomic status, the lower their life expectancy. But new research from Bayes Business School has found that many almshouse residents receive a “longevity boost” compared to their peers of the same socioeconomic status from the wider population.

The new research is based on analysis of many decades of records from 15 English almshouses. The life expectancy of almshouse residents was compared to people of similar gender and socio-economic background from the general population and was generally found to be longer. Giving an example, the authors estimate that a 73-year-old man entering the almshouse with the highest longevity boost in the study today could live 2.4 years longer than his peers from the same socioeconomic group.

Almshouses, which have traditionally provided affordable community housing for older people, are usually designed around a communal courtyard or gardens. Residents live independently and there are plenty of opportunities for social connection and support when needed.

Professor Ben Rickayzen, report co-author and professor of actuarial science at Bayes Business School, said: “More research is needed to ascertain exactly what factors cause almshouse residents to have a longer life. However, we postulate that it is the sense of the community that is the most powerful ingredient.

“For example, a common theme… is that [almshouses] encourage residents to undertake social activities and responsibilities on behalf of their fellow residents. This is likely to increase their sense of belonging and give them a greater sense of purpose in their everyday lives while mitigating against social isolation.”

Hammersmith United Charities Chief Executive, Victoria Hill, said: “It’s great to hear some evidence for what we’ve always felt to be true. Community means different things to different people, but usually it’s more than just the opportunity to socialise and be active. It’s often things like feeling safe and welcome among your neighbours, knowing there’s always someone nearby to help or being able to help others. It doesn’t surprise me that this feeling of belonging in your community may help you live longer and, we hope, happier lives.”

Find out more 
  • The full report: ‘Almshouse Longevity Study: Can Living in an Almshouse Lead to a Longer Life?’
  • Bayes Business School news release with a summary of key findings
  • Find out more about Hammersmith United Charities’s almshouses
  • Find out more about almshouses and their history

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