Hartlands - Holiday Centre for children with Autism
The Holiday Centre on the Isle of Wight for Families with Autistic children
Below is a brief introduction from the owners of Hartlands and Spectrum Breaks:
The Initial Idea
The idea began in 2010 when my wife and I made the decision to change our lives and setup a holiday centre for families with autistic children. The inspiration came from our youngest son Thomas (now 18) who was diagnosed at 3 with severe autism and epilepsy following brain surgery. Through Thomas and talking to others we learned ways to create a lifestyle around autism and the many challenges it brings. Going on holiday was one of the challenges, a time most people take to recharge batteries we found stressful and exhausting, so it seemed logical that a holiday centre specifically setup for families with autistic children would be a worthwhile venture, a holiday centre specifically designed just for them. In 2010 we started the journey to setup a centre where families could relax and enjoy a time away as a family without the normal stress it can bring and at the same time enjoy the company of other families where ideas and stories could be shared. We named the project Spectrum Breaks as the term spectrum is used in the diagnoses of autism due to the wide behavioural characteristics, and breaks because it is a primarily holiday centre.
Before we purchased any property we took the idea to a number of leading specialists in the field of autism, also to families with autistic children, the idea was very warmly received and many have volunteered time and expertise to help. This included Dr Viv Hinchcliffe a leading specialist in setting up schools for special needs children and Dr Elaine Hughes a Consultant Paediatric Neurologist at Kings College Hospital (London).
Funding the project
To purchase the property that would become the centre and fund the project we decided to sell our house in Biggin Hill and use our life savings, this gave us a budget of £800k to purchase and develop a site while avoiding any mortgage. We wanted to keep the whole project debt free so it would have stability and the opportunity to expand from the income it achieved while allowing us the option to offer lower cost holidays for families that would normally struggle to as we know bringing up an autistic child can be very expensive. I have continued in my current profession as an IT Programme Manager to help keep the finances as positive as possible.
Finding the right place
After researching most of the UK coast we eventually settled on the Isle of Wight as location of choice. The island has many attractions for all the family and is blessed with many beautiful beaches which autistic children love, but the island does not have the overwhelming crowds many other holiday destinations have, crowds that autistic children find difficult to cope with. We were under no illusion that the project would be a massive challenge and we would need as much help as we could get, and so we started to write letters. We were fortunate to be contact by the BBC1 program ‘Escape to the country’ who loved the idea and wanted to feature us in one of the programmes, and while they didn’t find the ideal property they certainly helped confirm the Island as the right place and pushed the project into the public eye.
The Project Goal
The primary goal of the project is simple, to create a relaxing holiday experience for families with autistic children whilst giving them opportunities to share ideas and experiences with other families. The project also has a secondary goal, and with the help from Dr Viv Hinchcliffe we are looking to achieve the status of a Centre of Excellence for Autism and create an ongoing programme of learning and change. This will also encompass providing support for the local autistic community and the local special needs school s.
In November 2011 a property became available that was ideal but it came with issues. The property was the Hartland Hotel in Shanklin Isle of Wight which was in receivership; comprising 20 bedrooms, a derelict swimming pool, a gym and a large function room. While its physical layout was ideal the condition was very poor with leaking roofs, leaking pool, rotten & broken windows, internal water damage, mould, and no water or heating. The layout however was ideal and the price good, so we took the plunge and purchased the property through auction, but this came with its own challenges. As the property was repossessed all the services were switched off and we were not allowed a survey, in reality we were buying a plot of land with a shell of a building and no guarantee on its working condition. In April 2012 we finally took full ownership, as the property had no services and we had an autistic child we decided to take a short term mortgage on our house while we made the property liveable before we moved over fully.
The Challenges and the Help
The first visit was planned and with Thomas being looked after by his Grandma at home we spent our first weekend in the building, it was cold outside and there was no heating, there was also no water to drink, but despite this we were in love with the property and we could see in our minds how it would one day be transformed into the dream we wanted it to be. After looking at the boilers and water we thought it best to get help, I told a friend of mine in British Gas what we were doing and he immediately volunteered to come over with his colleague from Wales to help us switch on the heating and check the water. Their first visit was to be one of many, for after close inspection they condemned the heating system as unsafe and found no direct fed cold water, but just like us they also fell in love with the building and the project and before long had organized a team of volunteer British Gas engineers to come over in July to put things right.
So for the first 4 months Elaine, Thomas, Grandma and I would travel over from work on Friday evening and camp out in two of the hotel rooms with our son, with bottles of water and food, an electric heater, and a bucket load of determination to keep us company. We would clean and clear as much as possible in two days and then return back home Sunday evening ready to start work. Our son Thomas, despite being autistic, took the challenge in his stride and seemed quite happy exploring this huge building with grandma while mum and dad spent three weeks just sorting bed linen into the useable and the unmentionable.
In July 2012 the first team of British Gas volunteers arrived, the atmosphere was electric and the volunteers were full of enthusiasm and amazement at the scale of the project. But within two weekends they had converted the heating into a modern system with new boilers, tanks, and valves with the building divided into zones controlled by individual thermostats which would eventually make up the livings spaces and common areas. They also converted the cold water supplies into a direct fed system for every cold tap, ideal as we know the autistic children drink bath water.
During 2012 the work continued, making the building water tight and creating a liveable space so we could move over and sell our existing house to clear the mortgage and pay for the conversion. The British Gas volunteers kept coming, two more teams came over to help, pulling down walls and clearing the building of rubbish, and they really were fantastic.
Until in February 2013 we were ready to move in, our area was still not 100% ready so we spent another 3 months living in the old hotel area, but we had hot water, heating, a camp stove and a TV we were happy.
During 2013 the work continued, windows were repaired, ceilings replaced and tiled floors laid. In fact we had a lucky find with the floor tiles, tucked away in an old out building we found 7500 terracotta white glazed tiles, these now make up the lower ground hallways and corridors along with the office and arts and crafts room. We also managed to get the swimming pool renovated and converted into a salt hydro pool which is ideal for the autistic children. And more volunteers joined us later in 2013 from British Gas helping us to insulate the building and renovate the outside.
Additional to British Gas we had Panasonic offer to help, they have provided a number of tough laptops which are ideal for the autistic children. And lastly we had IKEA join in by supplying us with two kitchens and a number of really enthusiastic volunteers from the local Southampton IKEA branch come over and build over 220 flat pack pieces of furniture.
The Centre finally opened its doors on the 1st October 2016 and the second part of the adventure has now begun……
Telephone: 07973 174682
Post: 41 Victoria Avenue, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6LT