THE head of a pioneering North-East charity has praised his staff for “going the extra mile” in maintaining vital services for vulnerable people during the coronavirus pandemic.

The North East Autism Society (NEAS) is continuing to provide a wide range of services to support autistic and neurodiverse people, and their families, during the biggest public health crisis in living memory.

And the charity’s chief executive, John Phillipson, below, said: “Every day, I am in awe of what the staff do, and they deserve massive credit during these incredibly difficult and tragic times.”

The Society is continuing to run two schools – the recently opened Thornhill Park School, at Sunderland, and Aycliffe School – where staff are caring for a reduced number of vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers.

Some of the teachers and teaching assistants at the schools have also volunteered to work shifts in children’s homes and residential accommodation for adults.

Thornbeck College, also at Aycliffe, is continuing to provide specialist care for a small number of vulnerable students.

And day services are being maintained at three sites: New Warlands Farm, at Burnhope, in County Durham; Number 24 Thornhill Park, in Sunderland; and Hendon Workshop, in Sunderland.

NEAS staff are providing further support for children and adults at 32 residential sites in the region. In addition, families are being given daily support and advice, as well as access to a range of educational and fun activities. Parcels of groceries are also being delivered to families with children on free school meals.

“We are supporting some of the most vulnerable children and adults in the North East and I can’t speak highly enough of the way the staff have responded. They have dug in, with hardly a query or complaint, as a team of highly committed professionals and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

“We have autistic and neurodiverse people who couldn’t possible tolerate someone wearing a mask or understand the need to stay two metres away, so the staff are finding themselves in extremely difficult situations. Despite that, they have shown phenomenal resilience and care.

“There is a public perception of the wonderful work carried out by doctors and nurses but there is not necessarily a mental picture of what our staff are doing every day.”

The Society, which has 850 staff, has had to cope with its own tragedies, with two much-loved employees – Margie Blyth and Sue Gargett – losing their lives to coronavirus, although there is no evidence they were infected at work.

In paying tribute to his staff, Mr Phillipson has also underlined the need for financial support to help the charity go on providing its services.

Due to the lockdown, NEAS has lost most of its traditional fundraising activities, as well as income from providing specialist training. However, there are additional costs, such as overtime to cover staff sickness,  and buying personal protection equipment.

“We are very grateful to be receiving funding from local authorities for lots of our services, but there is no funding for others, and the extra costs we are facing means every donation we receive makes a difference,” said Mr Phillipson.

Kevin Meikle, the Society's Fundraising Manager added: "During these unprecedented times the proactive offers of support and faith placed in us by our funders, donors and sponsors has been incredible. 

"From trusts and foundation extending the terms of our grants and setting up emergency relief funds owing to the lockdown; event sponsors honouring our commercial agreements despite postponement; to parents setting up support funds and showing huge personal generosity. We continue to be profoundly moved and grateful for these acts, but there is still a lot left to be done to fill this void"

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