Happily ever after

Equipping people with learning disabilities with the confidence to make friends and build relationships

Hammersmith 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, says Helena. “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.”

“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.

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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January 2021 grants

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

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Meet our trustees: Adam Matan OBE

Hammersmith United Charities trustee, Adam Matan, is a Somali-British human rights advocate, social activist and consultant.

Adam founded the Anti-Tribalism Movement in 2010, a non profit organisation tackling tribalism and inequalities within communities, and in 2020 went on to lead the Independent Policing and Crime Commission for Hammersmith and Fulham to examine the root causes of crime and anti-social behaviour in the borough.

What’s involved in your role as a trustee?
I have been a trustee for Hammersmith United Charities for four years. I really enjoy contributing to setting the direction and strategic priorities for the charity, and being involved in day-to-day activity like awarding grants. It’s rewarding to see our resources used for recreational and educational purposes for the community. I like visiting beneficiaries, to really see what impact small grants make to people’s lives.

As a trustee, I help to make sure the board is reflective of the communities we support in the north of the borough. I have a good understanding of what works well in the community sector, and which programmes and people we should be engaging with. I enjoy advocating for issues I’m passionate about, like disabilities, BAME organisations, and arts and cultural activities.

What’s shaped your work and values?
I came to the UK from Somalia when I was 13, following the Somali Civil War. In Somalia, children are often treated a little like adults, so I was very responsible when I came here – a bit more mature than a usual 13 old boy! We came here to improve our livelihood, and to help others, both at home and in the communities here. Those values were instilled in me at a young age by my family, so as soon as I finished university, I wanted to help other young people to achieve their potential. I went on to start the Anti-Tribalism Movement in 2010 – the aim was to fight tribe-based discrimination and promote peace and tolerance. Since then it has grown into an international force with 140,000+ members, which feels like one of my greatest achievements.

What changes do you want to see change in your community?
Covid-19 has exposed deep-rooted, decades-ignored social inequalities in our community. It’s unfortunate that it has taken such a world event to bring it to the surface. There is no way we will be able to ignore it now – so many people will be even poorer by the end of lockdown.

There is a family I’m working with on Lime Grove in Shepherd’s Bush. There are seven children, and mother and father living together in a two-bed flat. Imagine that under lockdown rules? Some of the children have underlying health issues. Both of the parents are key workers, so they can’t stay away from work – the family will literally starve to death if they do. But they always know they might be bringing the virus back, with no space for anyone to self-isolate.

Many fear that it’s just lip service when decision/policy-makers say that there will be change due to the lessons learned from Covid-19 There is a level of discontent and unsettledness amongst many BAME communities and their leaders. I don’t think it will be long until we see social unrest if there is no real response to some of these issues.

It’s something we’re beginning to work on at Hammersmith United Charities, with a programme called Let’s Talk About Race. We want to find out how we can engage with communities in a more meaningful way, to truly understand what our grantees and their service users think we should do to counter deep-rooted social inequalities. It has got to be led by the people.

What’s special about Hammersmith & Fulham?
I’m biased, but Hammersmith & Fulham is the greatest borough! It’s a city within a city. We have everything you can admire: three football clubs; the biggest shopping mall in Europe; beautiful, historical parks; the river; a flourishing business hub in Hammersmith; the ‘Silicon Valley’ of London at White City; and Uxbridge Road, one of the most diverse streets in London, running through the heart of the borough.

And through the pandemic we have seen how generous and supportive these communities have been to each other: the number of spaces opened for homeless people, food distribution, individuals been supporting each other, and businesses giving free food and other supports.

When there is a disaster, when there are members of the community who need support, the residents of this borough really pull together.

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5 minutes with Oksana

Our cleaner Oksana has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep the staff and residents of Hammersmith United Charities safe.


When it all started, it was a bit scary being a cleaner. Everyone was staying at home, but I was going in to work. Putting on the gloves and the mask, wearing them all day, every day. It was hard at first, but now it’s just normal. I want to go in to work every day – it’s a nice place to be. I’m very happy to have a job, and to see different people.

I clean everything I see. All the time, it’s door handles, doors, tables. Everything. We try to be very safe all the time.

Residents like to speak with me whenever they can, because other people aren’t allowed to visit, and they can’t really go anywhere. I’m one of the people they see most regularly, along with the scheme managers who check in on them every day.

At times like this, you can feel exhausted. So you have to try to think about something good. I try to be nice to people – it gives you more energy. I enjoy spending time with the residents. They are very, very good people, and they always say thank you to me for the job I do.

I haven’t been able to go home to Ukraine for two years. I really miss my family. I speak to them three times a week, but it’s not the same. People there are a little bit scared too. I really want to go this year, but I don’t know. How things have changed.

When I had my vaccination, I was a bit scared. At first I thought, I don’t want it. Then I was thinking, I should get it, because I’m working with old people, and travelling in to work on the tube. And it was fine – very quick and easy. Plus it’s better for all of us, because it will help us all get back towards normal life.

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“It’s an opportunity to rewrite the future”

As our community takes tentative steps towards recovery, we find out how Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s Covid-19 emergency response has relied on partnership working and the creativity of the third sector.






“I can remember when we saw the first deaths in a residential home. That was a particularly low moment. It was traumatic for everyone – a terrible tragedy,” says Linda Jackson, director of Covid-19 Response and Recovery for Hammersmith & Fulham Council. “Now everyone has been touched by this crisis, one way or another. It’s been really difficult, seeing the devastating impact on families and businesses.”

The crisis over the past year has brought together everyone living and working in the community like never before, Linda says. “There has been an extraordinary partnership response between the council, fire, police, NHS, businesses, community organisations, residents – with camaraderie at every level.”

Early days of the pandemic

After recordingthe very first case on 22 January 2020, the council could see what was coming on the horizon and knew it needed to act quickly, Linda says. By the beginning of March, a structure was put in place to get some control and respond quickly. The team has always tried to be intelligence-led in its response, she says, and closely monitored how the pandemic was progressing in Hammersmith, London, the UK and the world.

It became clear in March 2020 that hospitals were discharging residents into care homes without first testing them for Covid-19. With an absence of national guidance or support, the council team forged ahead, linking up closely with health partners to close the homes to new admissions and test everyone to bring the virus under control. And in November, Hammersmith & Fulham became the first borough in London to launch lateral flow testing initially at residential care homes and then at three fixed centres making tests much more widely available. The council has also been facilitating the NHS-run vaccination programme, helping to set up centres and supporting GPs with systems and process.

For organisations providing sheltered housing with high numbers of older people, the speedy roll-out of these programmes has been game-changing. “With both testing and vaccinations, I always felt that the council was doing its best to bring any single benefit to the community as quickly as it could,” says Victoria Hill, chief executive of Hammersmith United Charities, which provides almshouse accommodation for older people on lower incomes.

“When we started being able to test our staff on site in December, it was a really big deal. It became a huge part of our infection control process,” says Victoria. “Before that, we were constantly worried that we could be infectious without knowing it and bring the virus on site.”

“All of our over-80s were vaccinated before Christmas, followed by staff in January. Now nearly everyone is vaccinated. It is such an incredible relief. Every single health and social care worker in the world has been weighing this up, every day, for a year: am I going to bring coronavirus into work? Am I going to take it back home with me?”

Working with the third sector

The council and the NHS are pushing out vaccines and testing to every corner of the borough with the help of the voluntary sector, Linda acknowledges. These organisations have a unique ability to wrap quickly around the thousands of people in the borough whose lives have been turned upside down by coronavirus.

“There is a quite breath-taking amount of skills and abilities in the local third sector,” says Linda. “These organisations move silently within communities and activate community capacity a lot quicker and better than a council officer could.”

Over the past year, the council and grassroots organisations have worked together to provide support where it’s been needed most. Early on the Volunteer Community Aid Network (CAN), along with street-level mutual aid groups, galvanised hundreds of people to volunteer their time to help vulnerable people. There has also been a 150% growth in donations to the food bank in the borough to support the surge in families who now can’t afford to put food on the table. “Some of the people using food banks were looking forward to a holiday a few years ago. Now they have no income and no money,” says Linda.

In partnership with fundraising organisation United in Hammersmith & Fulham, the council set up the Covid Appeal in March 2020, and local businesses and residents have now donated over £144,000 to fund organisations supporting people affected by the pandemic.

Community organisations are powerful because they have an intimate, inside-out understanding of the borough, says Victoria. “Hammersmith United Charities also provides grants to local organisations, and when I look at the organisations we’ve funded throughout this crisis, I see a strong movement of charities run by people who live here. They know the people most in need personally and over the crisis have worked together at speed to provide whatever is needed – whether it’s food, laptops, phone data, toilet paper, or a cheering phone call.”

“Throughout the pandemic, community organisations have stepped up very quickly, without thought to their previous agenda or outside pressures like funder’s targets. They just changed what they usually did to meet the immediate need, because their first priority was getting their community through this crisis. I hope funders now have a better understanding that it’s crucial to trust community organisations and give them the flexibility to respond to needs as they see them changing.”

Green shoots

So what does recovery in Hammersmith and Fulham look like? “I can see the green shoots of spring,” says Linda. “We’ve launched our ‘Shop Local, Shop Safe’ campaign to help businesses open safely as lockdown is eased. And we’ve got to build on the connections we’ve made with the third sector. After 12 months of working really hard together, how do we keep the capacity we’ve gained? We want to develop the recovery plan in co-production with the third sector, so that it’s an integral part of what the council offers, rather than working around the outside.”

The pandemic has shifted health and social care priorities. “Before, the focus was on specific diseases, like diabetes and cancer. Now? It’s on basic needs like food, employment, housing,” says Linda. “Some say it’s a backwards step. I say it’s an opportunity to rewrite the future. But we absolutely need the community sector to write it with us.”

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