Jenny Stacey, 56, and Pat Winning, 63, are respectively manager and deputy manager of the Open Door centre at St Barnabas Church Hall in Gorse Hill, which helps adults with learning disabilities to explore and achieve their potential. It was recently given a grant of £5,174 from the Swindon Charity Ball. Jenny lives in Old Town and Pat in Highworth.

JENNY Stacey has been at Open Door for 31 years and Pat Winning for 26.

It’s hardly surprising that such long-time friends and colleagues speak almost as one at times.

Pat: “We’ve never just supported the individual person that comes – we support any of the family members who want support. We provide the opportunity for adults with learning difficulties to become their own person.”

Jenny: “To have a voice, to have a choice.”

Pat: “To not be thought of as having a disability, because we don’t look at anybody’s disability — we look at everybody’s ability.”

Jenny: “Everyone is somebody’s brother or sister. We just see what people can do.”

Pat: “People who came with severe issues are now not on medication because they found their own worth.”

Jenny: “I thoroughly enjoy every day here and what we get back here. There is so much love, enjoyment, kindness, caring.

“There’s not a day that I wake up and say I don’t want to go to work. I can’t wait to get here. It’s a wonderful place.”

Pat: “I feel exactly the same as Jenny, and I’ve felt that way since day one. Once it’s in your heart, you find it very difficult to leave.” Open Door supports more than 100 people with learning disabilities, as well as offering help to their loved ones.

Members gather to socialise, to enjoy hobbies and to learn life skills.

Activities include music, computing, cookery, photography, video games, fitness, and health and food hygiene skills. Members run a small café and, to a great extent, the centre itself.

There are day trips and holidays, both in Britain and abroad.

The aim is that each member achieves everything they are capable of. For some that might mean an independent life, with a home of their own and a fulfilling job; for others it might be something as outwardly simple yet life-changing as being able to take a bus trip or visit a shop.

Sometimes the role of Open Door, which has seven salaried staff and eight volunteers, includes gently reassuring worried but well-meaning parents or other family members that their loved one’s newfound independence is a good thing.

Jenny’s first career was as a hairdresser, initially with David Charles in Victoria Road and then with her own mobile salon.

“On my day off from my mobile hairdressing I did one day of voluntary work. I did that for a year and then saw an advert for an activity organiser, as it was then, at the Pilgrim Centre, based at the bottom of Victoria Road.

“There was a fair trade café and five people used to meet there during the day.”

The five, who had learning challenges, included the daughter of Dennis Kingston, who went on to found Open Door, and her friends. There was nowhere for her to go and meet other people, so he arranged for a few friends to meet in the café.

Jenny said: “It started off with five people; then a few more people started coming, so money was secured from Churches Together in Swindon, social services and different grants to move downstairs into the big church hall.

“Then the Pilgrim Centre had the new place built in town, so we moved to St Mark’s. That’s when Pat came.”

The move to Gorse Hill came later.

Pat said: “I worked in an office when I left school. Then, in between having children, I did lots of different jobs – party planner, work in a pub, all that sort of thing.

“Then I became a volunteer to help a young boy who had brain damage to have exercise. I got involved and became chairman of the fundraising committee. Then I got a job in a residential home in Swindon and worked there for six years.”

After taking time out to see one of her children through a hospital stay and help a friend through illness, Pat went to work for Open Door. She had earlier met Jenny when residents of the home where Pat worked took part in an Open Door social event.

Every day Jenny, Pat and their colleagues are reminded of the effect Open Door has on people’s lives.

They recently attended the funeral of a member and heard a poignant story of his last illness.

Jenny said: “His sister was sat with him and he said to her in a very strained voice, ‘Am I going to Open Door tomorrow?’ They were his parting words. I said to Pat, ‘You don’t realise how important it is to people’.”

There are other stories, such as that of the man who had been cared for long into adulthood by loved ones and was devastated after they died.

“Now he lives in a flat,” said Jenny. “A beautiful flat. We go and visit and he comes here.”

Pat added: “He comes here and he’s sort of in charge, because if he sees an odd job that needs doing he’ll just get on and do it. Nobody asks him to.

“He still has moments when things overwhelm him, when he gets frightened of new things to a degree, but in here he knows that he’s safe and he’s in charge.”

Another member had severe autism, and was initially in such distress that he would hide in a cupboard or behind a curtain.

With help from Open Door, he was eventually able to walk from Open Door to the town centre to deliver a letter to social services. He then walked back to Open Door. He insisted on making the journey alone.

Pat said: “He was so proud that he could do that – that he had been in control.”

Open Door is partly funded by Swindon Borough Council, partly by grants and partly through fundraising. Jenny and Pat are immensely grateful to all who support the organisation.

“The members say it’s like their big extended family,” said Pat.

“When bad things happen we cry together, when good things happen we laugh together. We celebrate – and we’re good at celebrating.” More information about the centre and its work, and what people can do to help, can be found at