Despite being in their early seventies, Keith and Liz Walker are whirlwind dynamos when it comes to volunteering for Daisy Chain, shifting and assembling furniture and keeping the superstore tidy with an enviable vigour.
The family has been involved since the charity’s early beginnings – not long after Lesley Hanson’s husband began to build her legacy and fulfil her vision to build a haven for families affected by autism.
Grandson Harry, now 17, was diagnosed with autism when he was four and Liz recalls, “Daisy Chain was the only place where we did not have to tick box after box to get any support. Without Daisy Chain, I don’t think we would be here today.
“They helped us apply for respite care no matter how many applications it took and then we would be able to get a little respite – the lengths they would go to was amazing.”
The couple admired Daisy Chain because it was the only place that offered support to the whole family; parents, carers, grandparents, siblings. Harry’s brother Max, now 15, received support and help to understand his brother. Cousin’s Peter and Lucy also benefited from activity days and now their two great grandchildren attend Daisy Chain. “Every generation of our family is involved with Daisy Chain,” Liz laughs.
“It’s a very special place and it soon has you hooked. Even in those early years with few resources, if someone went to Daisy Chain with a problem, there was a determination to find an answer and help,” Liz explains. “Meeting other parents also made a huge difference and service providers coming in to speak was great because often you didn’t get to see them face to face and be able to find out what you needed to know.
“In those days, there was so little at the farm that the activity days had to be held at Stockton Cricket Club, and volunteer Kath Snowdon provided the activities,” Liz recalls. “Kath was amazingly inventive. There wasn’t anything like the resources there is now so she had to be really creative with the activities – she was brilliant.”
At that time, donations of goods were kept in the old barn and Liz would sort out the goods for table top sales. “We expanded to a table at Darlington market and in two years of sales we made £6,500 which was a lot then.”
From those small beginnings, the superstore would be built up to the major operation it is today, providing a major income for the charity which enables it to continue offering vital services for families including expanding into adult services.
Keith’s volunteering began when the charity needed someone mend the bikes the children used at the farm and then together, the couple would hold ‘brick’ parties to raise funds to build the day centre. “We would have wine and cheese nights and people would bring their sleeping bags to stay over – we were raising £5 for each brick.”
The couple’s commitment stems from their loyalty to Daisy Chain, “Harry started the diagnostic process at just after he was two and we felt like we were passed from pillar to post until we got to Daisy Chain. Everywhere else we never quite filled the criteria for support.”
It has been a long and rocky road for Keith, Liz and Harry’s mum Emma, but Harry is now settled and studying catering at Stockton Riverside College. He has also signed up to volunteer for Daisy Chain and works in the superstore coffee shop outside of term time.
Says Keith, “It’s all about giving something back. The need for Daisy Chain is massive. I found the parents’ meetings really helpful, speaking to each other meant there was a lot of self-help and support.”
Keith works two full, eight-hour days each week in the superstore and Liz still covers two half days each week, despite a hip operation and spinal surgery.
“It’s amazing to see what the commitment of a small team 15 years ago has grown into. The achievement is incredible,” Keith smiles.
And the couple, who have been married 50 years, plan to keep on volunteering, “For as long as we possibly can,” laughs Liz.