Inside Norfolk's vital lifeline centre offering families respite

Nelson Lodge in Long StrattonBeca Bilverstone, Rachel Cowdry, James WrightByline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Beca Bilverstone, Rachel Cowdry, James Wright Byline: Sonya Duncan

A vital Norfolk centre providing care to vulnerable young people kept its doors open throughout the pandemic, despite the challenges staff faced themselves. Reporter Sarah Hussain goes behind the scenes to highlight their efforts.

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton, run by charity Break, provides short residential breaks for young people between the ages of five to 16 with disabilities on the edge of care.

The six-bedded respite centre in South Norfolk, which opened in 2004, provides families with much needed support by offering a "home away from home" for children with autism spectrum disorders or other physical disabilities and challenging behaviours.

Nelson Lodge in Long StrattonByline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Byline: Sonya Duncan

Staff at the service dedicate their efforts to creating a "family-like environment" for all involved.

Some making their own mark, not only at the centre itself, but in their lifelong commitment to playing an important role in the childhood's of the children they care for.

Nelson Lodge offers a range of activities to help children develop their communication and independent-living skills, from its play areas and sensory room to uniquely designed bedrooms.

James Wright, deputy manager at Nelson Lodge, said it offers a lifeline for families and helps keep the children it cares for at home.

Nelson Lodge in Long StrattonJames Wright, Deputy Manager Byline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton James Wright, Deputy Manager Byline: Sonya Duncan

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He said: "It's that thin line, you start removing those things and then the family situation gets worse and it falls apart, and that young person falls into full-time care.

"That's why we're here.

"Our focus is the young person, the families are the one benefiting from the service."

'It allows us to do things most people take for granted'

Jack, 15, has been going to Nelson Lodge for around 10 years and is on the highest care package available due to his severe autism.

His father Robin said without the centre his family would be unable to spend some time doing activities such as taking his other children out for meals or on mini breaks.

He added: "We normally have at least one night a week and every few weeks we tend to have a weekend.

Nelson Lodge in Long StrattonByline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Byline: Sonya Duncan

"It's really useful that on those occasions we can do things that 'normal' families might do.

"It really can't be undersold how important the service is, and how much we rely on that to get by."

The father said due to Jack's vulnerabilities he cannot communicate if something is wrong and that his family place a "great deal of trust" into any setting he goes to.

He added: "Jack is very difficult to take out, if he doesn't want to do something, he's at a size and age now where he can protest quite strongly and even a trip to the shops you wouldn't be able to do.

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

"Him going to school and Nelson Lodge helps with his learning skills and also gives us opportunity to do things we can't do when he's around such as taking his siblings to the cafe for a drink and a cake in the morning.

"Very simple things that most people take for granted."

He commended staff for the care they provide his son.

'The need didn't go away'

Nelson Lodge, which has 20 young people on its books, stayed open throughout the pandemic but reduced its care down to two children in the wake of Covid-19 following government guidelines and to allow for social distancing.

And Break as a whole was also hit, resulting in it having to "significantly shift" some of its practices.

This saw staff operate in bubbles to minimise the potential impact a positive case would have, and others distributed to help in other areas.

Nelson Lodge in Long StrattonByline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Byline: Sonya Duncan

In health and social care, people needing to isolate at the charity had a "huge impact" on staffing, which is now being "exacerbated by the difficulties in recruitment".

Dan Crouch, director of income generation at Break, said: "We were asking staff to turn up and provide a loving, caring, family-like home, during a time there was restrictions in their homes and reasons to be scared.

"For the young people we work with, the pandemic kind of reinforced their views that the world is a scary place and suddenly it was real."

Mr Wright added: "It was a crunch time, other services that the families would also access were closing down and that then puts increased pressures on the families. 

"The need didn't go away when the pandemic came, in fact it probably got worse."

The charity, which has 240 care staff, currently has 20 vacancies across its services and is struggling with staff shortages and sickness.

CEO Rachel Cowdry said the challenges has meant people have been working overtime and that some agency work had to be brought in.

Nelson Lodge in Long StrattonRachel Cowdry, CEO at BreakByline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Rachel Cowdry, CEO at Break Byline: Sonya Duncan

She added: "But that does over time take a toll and we're working really hard to let our communities know how exciting working in care can be and the opportunities in progression.

"Financially the first few months of the pandemic was the hardest period, we were hurt because we didn't have our shops open and have fundraising events.

"But we're a resilient charity and our care services are very strong at the moment.

"Staffing wise Norfolk wasn't hit particularly badly in the first wave and we probably had two staff across all of our services who had Covid at that point.

"Now is the point where we have people isolating and who have Covid."

She added that the issue of vacancies is sector wide which is also as a result of Brexit, with more job opportunities that "were not there pre-pandemic".

Mr Wright said Nelson Lodge had recently lost staff due to people wanting to reduce the number of hours they work and spend more time at home with their families following the pandemic, and others as a result of people progressing into roles in social care and Norfolk County Council.

"For us, it's about replacing and that's the struggle", he added.

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Break's recruitment drive:

Break is currently running a recruitment drive to fill the shortfall.

The CEO said: "People wanting to work in these services think they need a host of qualifications and things, but actually we're quite comfortable to take people with the right values, mindset and energy and who are enthusiastic to learn.

"You can start on low experience and grow into a senior, deputy and manager role over time."

Becca Bilverstone, who started at the centre two years ago, is testimony to this, having previously worked as a beauty-therapist with no experience in the social care sector.

The senior support worker said: "I feel like I moulded in very quickly.

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton
Beca Bilverstone, senior support worker
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Nelson Lodge in Long Stratton Beca Bilverstone, senior support worker Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

"I certainly never thought, two years down the line I'd be applying for a senior role and be successful.

"I'm proud of how far I've come in that short space of time. I've had so much support from everyone here to get where I need to be and where I am."

Speaking about the job, she said: "It's home from home, the young people come from school.

"We set up activities for them and try to improve their personal skills as well. 

"Routine is key for these young children and developing those life skills is so rewarding for something they haven't done before, such as trying a different food.

"They seem like little things, but are huge things for these young people."

She added that behaviours can be challenging at times and sometimes rough when dealing with a difficult situation such as having hair pulled by a child, but that staff support one another and "remember it's not personal".

She said: "The team really work together and are each others shoulders to cry on."

For more information on vacancies and to support Break visit