A Wandsworth special needs organisation is fundraising to create a garden for the children they support after experiencing difficulties securing funding.
Sen Talk hopes to raise at least £2,000 through GoFundMe to help transform their disused outdoor space into a garden where children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can play and learn.
Since it was founded in 2016, the Wandsworth organisation has run after school and holiday clubs for young people with special educational needs (SEN), providing social opportunities and support they struggle to access elsewhere.
Referring to the support available before she started the non-profit, Sen Talk Founder and Director Annaliese Boucher said: “There was very little access, particularly for mainstream kids with SEN, to any enrichment opportunities.
“They were often isolated from after school clubs because there wasn’t one to one support or they didn’t have sufficient funding, so all of these other parts of community life in the school weren’t happening and I really wanted to address that.”
According to Boucher, many of the children supported by Sen Talk do not have access to gardens elsewhere despite having sensory needs which make crowded indoor spaces feel overwhelming.
She hopes the new garden will provide a safe and controlled environment where children can relax and enjoy outdoor activities.
Isaiah, 16, has been coming to Sen Talk for almost two years and says he is looking forward to growing lavender in the new garden.
He said: “It will be great for sensory needs because you’ve got the soil, you’ve got the smelling of the plants you’re growing.”
According to Sen Talk administrative assistant, Jay East, Isaiah has played an important role in the garden project while completing work experience with the organisation.
The schoolboy says he enjoys giving back to the service that has helped him so much and hopes the scent of the lavender will help calm the children with ASC and ADHD.
He said: “You get that independence, and you know you are doing something that is helping others.”
Sen Talk’s core costs are currently covered by grants from organisations including the National Lottery and Children in Need, but these do not stretch far enough to fund additional projects like the garden revamp.
Boucher explained difficulties securing long-term funding due to the current economic situation have left the organisation with just one year’s running costs.
She said the lack of consistent funding for SEN services creates an unsustainable workload for her and office administrator East, who spend hours applying for grants and organising fundraisers to ensure they can continue to support young people.
East said: “Our time needs to be put in with the children.
“That is what we do, we need to be there for the kids, to do what we can for them, support them emotionally, mentally, and make sure everything’s up and running for the clubs.”
Boucher added: “It’s taken a massive toll on my health. I’m just watching myself deplete.”
Funding difficulties also prevent Sen Talk from expanding its small team of four staff members to help meet high demand.
According to its GoFundMe page, the organisation already supports over 1,500 families annually, but with 15 to 20 referrals coming in weekly and a waiting list of between 30 and 50 families, those seeking support today face a wait of roughly nine months.
East explained that while Wandsworth Council neither funds nor supports Sen Talk, it often refers families to them when they are at “breaking point” after struggling to access suitable local authority support for their children at school.
In June, England’s Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza expressed concerns about the lack of SEND provision in mainstream schools and long waiting times for Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP) which children must obtain before they can access appropriate support.
The Commissioner called for a ”radical rehaul” of the SEND system as data from the Department of Education revealed the number of EHCPs issued this year has failed to keep up with record demand.
One parent, Lou, revealed that her daughter’s experience in mainstream school shattered her belief that local authorities were doing the right thing for children with additional needs.
She said the eight-year-old was allowed to wander around her mainstream school unsupervised, roll around on the floor at the back of music lessons and on one occasion was left alone in the playground after refusing to come inside.
While Lou had to fight to secure suitable school support, her daughter was able to access Sen Talk’s services before even being diagnosed with ADHD and ASC.
She said: “It’s the only place I’ve not had to jump through a hoop.”
According to Lou, the battle for support takes a significant toll on both parents and children, and Sen Talk has been essential in healing the damage done.
She said: “I think I’d probably fall over if wasn’t the fact that I had respite, but it’s also very important for my daughter because by virtue of what she’s been through, she’s so dependent on me.
“It’s building up that idea for her that other adults are safe outside of her special school environment and outside of home.”
An essential part of Sen Talk’s work focuses on rebuilding that self-esteem by empowering children, helping them develop confidence, and learn new skills.
Boucher and East hope that the garden will add to this offer by providing more choice and allowing children to independently explore new activities such as growing vegetables and herbs to cook with.
Lou said: “It’s amazing what a small space can do.
“Just having that freedom to decide, am I going to go outside or not? Do I want to play this? Can I cope with a bit of rain?
“It can be quite brave for these children to be doing things more independently.”
Work on the garden transformation began in late June when volunteers from Good Gym Wandsworth helped clear rubbish and weeds from the outdoor space, but Sen Talk are still seeking donations to help them hit their £2,000 target.
All image credits: Mirrhyn Stephen