Meg Rowley - February 19th , 2021

Something to smile about!

Sunshine & Smiles, based in Leeds, provide life-changing help and activities for young people with Down Syndrome and their families. We caught up with service manager Ailith Harley-Roberts to find out more about their work and how our brand new giving platform Givto can help.

Sunshine & Smiles was one of the first charities to sign up to our brand new giving platform Givto. Based in Leeds, they provide life-changing help and activities for young people with Down Syndrome and their families.

We caught up with service manager Ailith Harley-Roberts to find out more about the work they do and the difference your donations will make.

Welcome Ailith. Can you tell us a little bit about what Sunshine & Smiles does?

Well we were set up nine years ago, and our mission is to improve the lives of children and families living with Down Syndrome.

One of our core activities is speech and language therapy sessions. Speech for people with Down Syndrome is challenging because auditory processing can be really difficult, so providing consistent support in this area is really important. We usually have more than 60 children and young people accessing monthly sessions with our specialist speech therapists. We also run Makaton sign language classes for babies under 12 months.

And then we provide lots of social and recreational activities too, including music and dance classes, yoga, singing, football and swimming sessions at Bramley Baths. We work across the city and try to make sure distance isn’t a barrier by providing transport for families travelling from other parts of Leeds, if needed.

And you also run a café?

Yes we do – 21 Co. at Headingley Central, in Headingley. It actually started out as a pop-up project. The plan was to open for a week and provide basic employment and customer service skills for some of our young people. But it took us by surprise how well received it was by the local community, and how much the young people gained from it and grew in confidence. So we found the funding to make it more permanent.

What do the families and young people you work with need the most?

It’s the stuff you can’t really put your finger on. Particularly in the early days when families have just had a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, either in pregnancy or when their baby has been born. It’s about being there to listen. What each family is managing and dealing with is so vastly different.

Many of our families build their own friendships, which in the long run is even more beneficial. During coronavirus we set up a WhatsApp group for new families to make sure they still had that connection with each other. I’m just there in the background unless anyone wants to ask a particular question.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on charities. In what ways has it affected Sunshine & Smiles?

It’s the lack of face-to-face activities. We’ve had to shut the café but have tried to keep our main activities running online. We’re always at the end of a phone, an email or on the Facebook group, but there just isn’t a substitute to being with people and talking.

In terms of funding, the biggest impact has been on actual fundraising. Lots of our families and supporters get involved in things like the Great North Run, the Leeds Half Marathon or Leeds 10K, but obviously those things just haven’t been happening. Of course, people keep going and do amazing stuff to raise money. But the larger grant funding processes are becoming more competitive than ever.

We were delighted that you were one of the first charities we featured. What made you sign up?

One of our families told me about it and I thought it sounded really positive. It was very straightforward – after the initial sign-up there’s nothing else we had to do, which for a small charity is really helpful.

I like the fact that people can make a regular donation they’re comfortable with and they can choose a different charity each month. You’re spreading more good because rather than sending donations to the same charity, it gets shared. It’s just a really lovely idea.

What difference will the donations make?

You can break it down in so many ways. But the real thing here is that it pays for activities that directly benefit people. The money’s not going towards keeping a big organisation running, it’s going to a small charity helping people in really practical ways.

For example, the money we have received so far would pay for 48 people to attend a speech and language group session, or five one-to-one support sessions with individual families. For that family, when you have so many things to think about, tricky forms to fill in, so many questions and so many worries… well, it can make all the difference.

Find out more about Sunshine & Smiles and sign up to Givto today to support charities like them.