Prisca, tell us more about yourself?

Well, what can I say? I’m married to Gilbert and we have three grown up children and four grandchildren. Gilbert is a driver for a living, and I’ve been at NEAS now for 11 years. We are originally from Zimbabwe but we now live in Sunderland and I’m currently the Senior Support Worker for two adult residential homes in Sunderland; Ashdale and Ashgate Cottage.

How did you begin your career, have you always worked helping people?

I started out by achieving a diploma from Sunderland College as a Teaching Assistant which led me to working with young people with special needs, including autism, at a school. Two years after that a job came up at NEAS working with adults and I applied. I was nervous because I didn’t know a lot about autism but I was passionate about helping people, so I went for it.

Where does that passion come from?

Back in Zimbabwe, a lot of years ago now, I had a friend with a little girl who had a lot of difficulties. Not much was known about autism or disabilities like that and at the time people thought she was mentally disturbed. It broke my heart because that little girl was almost left to die because no-one believed she had a future. When I began learning that people with autism could have a future, and that they can contribute to society and have a fulfilling life I would often think back to that little girl and it drives me, even now. If I can help one person to be feel happy, and to enjoy life like anyone else then I’m satisfied I’ve done a good job.

Prisca Mariwo

And you must love your job Prisca; we hear you’ve never had a single day off sick?

I’ve been lucky I think. I have been ill a couple of times but it has always fallen when I’m off on holiday. The truth is that I do love my job. I see the service users and my co-workers as family and so I really do want to be at work. I also go to bed early… maybe that’s my secret!

Without a huge amount of knowledge about autism, how did you find your first day on the job?

You won’t believe me when I tell you, but back then when you applied for a job and they were considering you, you did a ‘trial shift’. My first day was taking some service users to a disco in Sunderland. I didn’t know Makaton (a type of sign language) or anything and when we got to the disco one of the girls just grabbed my hand. She wanted me to dance with her. Instinctively I just got up there and danced. I could sense a connection with her. I knew then that I could do the job. They thought so too because when we got back the manager said, ‘see you on your first day.’

You’ve come a long way since that first day 11 years ago…

Yes, I have, but I could never have done it without the support of my managers throughout the years. I’ve loved doing every kind of different training and learning how to do the job better, how to help the service users and I’ve loved learning more and more about autism. I remember my manager asking me if I was going to go for the post of ‘senior support worker,’ and I thought, ‘what? – how can I do that? English is my second language, I don’t know if I have the skills!’ But every step of the way I’ve been supported and encouraged. Like I say, it’s like family, and family helps one another.

Do you have any highlights or funny stories that stick out from over the years?

I’m embarrassed to say that when I first had to start writing reports I didn’t really know what to do, and so I put down every little detail. It was, ‘He said this,’ and ‘she did that’. It must have read like a story book. Thankfully I had a good manager who saw the funny side and worked with me so I could learn how to do it properly. I kept thinking, ‘ I wonder why they need to know all of this!’

Seriously, though, I don’t have one main highlight from all the years of working with people but it’s always an amazing moment when you realise one of the service users has made great personal progress. I remember once I had a girl who couldn’t dress herself. In the beginning she needed help to do everything and gradually over time she began to be able to do it. Every day I would keep nudging her along, telling her she could do it, and refusing to give in and give up. When she could eventually do that for herself, it was a small detail for someone else but a big milestone for her. I love those moments.

What advice would you give to other members of staff, or new recruits to NEAS?

I would say the secret for me has always been taking every opportunity to train and learn. You don’t do this job for the money, you do it because you love to help people. If you want to do that then you need to keep learning and training and being the best you can be. I’ve always tried to be respectful to my co-workers and staff as well. I think respect goes a long way.

And it would seem Prisca’s manager, Jill Richardson, agrees.

She said: “I have worked alongside Prisca since she started more than 10 years ago. She is a very hard working member of staff, bubbly, enthusiastic and always willing to try new experiences with the service users.

“She has very good relationships with all seven young people and their families who she works with between the two homes. Prisca brings an energy to the team that is infectious and always makes the young people and her co-workers smile.”

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