A NEW purpose-built centre for youngsters with disabilities is designed to be a place where they can be themselves.

Parc (Essex), in Great Notley Country Park, near Braintree, is making a real difference to young people from as far away as Cambridge, and to their families.

The charity has come a long way since it was founded 12 years ago by a group of parents who felt people like them deserved better support. Its new centre, which cost slightly more than £500,000, is a far cry from the group’s previous home in a temporary building.

The new one was officially opened last week by former England rugby player Jason Leonard and offers a sensory room, sensory integration room, soft play area, chillout zone, a playground, its own kitchen and smaller rooms for art.

Youngsters at the centre are split into two groups – whizzy (more able) and vulnerable – and enjoy activities, youth clubs, a football club and trips to fun places such as Colchester Zoo and Legoland.

Deputy manager Lindsey Price says: “The parents make friends and the children make friends and develop social skills.

“The children learn what’s socially acceptable and things like that.

“When they are here, they can just be themselves, but unfortunately, in wider society, there are rules and people have to be a certain way.”

Parc was rated outstanding in its latest Ofsted inspection and has about 250 children on its books, with disabilities ranging from speech and language problems to autism, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Ben Ladyman, who has worked at Parc for a year, says: “I look after a lot of kids who have improved since I have been here.”

Many youngsters have actually started talking for the first time while at the centre, he adds.

Lindsey says: “Many parents say without us, they would have to depend on social services so much more. We’re providing a service to them as well.”

Louise Thain, 37, of Ashes Road, Cressing, takes her three-year-old son Tristan to two to three groups a week.

He suffers from epilepsy and has sight problems, and his mum, who is a trustee of the charity, says without Parc, she would feel very alone.

“When you have a child with a problem, you ask ‘why me?’ and wonder where you can go to cope” she adds.

Parc, she explains, is a place you where you can just walk in, sit down and have a coffee. Many of the staff understand parents’ problems and they also have children with disabilities.

She particularly likes the fact she can get involved in the sessions with Tristan and the way sessions are tailored to individual needs.

She says: “Even though it’s a charity and started off small, it’s very professional.”

Parc caters for young people from birth to the age of 25 and has a regular staff of ten, backed by a regular team of about 15 volunteers and a further 50 who help out from time to time.

Funding is “always a worry”, Lindsey admits, as the service costs about £250,000 a year to run.

She says: “We are lucky, as sometimes we secure funding which lasts maybe two or three years, but then after two years, you think ‘what do we do now?’ “It’s scary in many ways. You ask, ‘tomorrow will it still be there?’”

Parc has its new building and is already looking ahead. A sensory garden would really make the centre complete, Lindsey says. It would also be good to open other centres.

She says: “The dream would be to have a Parc somewhere else, for people who live further away and cannot come here.”

To donate to Parc, or to volunteer, call 01376 528999.