Charity focus: The Variety Club in Sunderland

Nine year old pupils Jack Coates and Jake Knight, right, at Thorney Close Primary School, Sunderland, with their new bikes thanks to the Variety Club.
Nine year old pupils Jack Coates and Jake Knight, right, at Thorney Close Primary School, Sunderland, with their new bikes thanks to the Variety Club.
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WITH his customized walker, Jake Knight has a rare taste of independence.

The-nine-year-old Thorney Close Primary pupil has cerebral palsy and uses his walker two or three times a day during morning break and lunch times.

It is a blessing for the youngster, but with a price tag of £16,000, the walker would have been far out of the school’s normal budget.

Thankfully the Variety Club stepped up and paid for the walker; as well as buying a £2,500 running frame for nine-year-old Jack Coates, who also has cerebral palsy.

Sandra Fishburn-Parker, lead teacher of the deaf at the school, said: “There’s not much money for anything beyond basic educational equipment so we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting them without the Variety Club.

“It’s the overall child you need to look at and what’s going to make a difference to them.

“Their fitness levels and confidence have improved and then there’s the pure enjoyment they get.”

Jake’s mum Jamie agrees: “I think socially, because he’s only got his wheelchair, it opens up his world and makes him a part of everything else. He really enjoys it because there aren’t many things out there he can use.

“About a year ago the school approached the Variety Club as there’s not much funding for this kind of equipment and he needs more than he gets.

“It’s brilliant for him.”

Jack’s mum Michelle Webster says his running frame makes a real difference to her son.

“He has complex needs and it helps him build muscles in problem areas as well as helping him socially and giving him independence,” she explained. “To see his little face when he got it – for any mum that’s a lovely thing.”

Specialist equipment, Sunshine coaches, trips and treats are what the Variety Club do best.

Last year, more than 5,000 coaches were delivered around the country; while hundreds of Sunderland children enjoyed trips to the theatre, cinema and panto, toy vouchers and days out.

Mrs Cathy Westgate is headteacher at Hudson Road Primary. The Variety Club started helping her school a year ago, and Cathy reckons this makes a real difference. She said: “Our children work so hard and every year their results improve. The Variety Club started helping us about a year ago and it just gives the children that little extra incentive – they know they haven’t been forgotten.

“We’re a lovely, happy school and our parents do so much for the children but we don’t have the most money so the children are thrilled to ribbons with these lovely treats.”

At the heart of the Variety Club are the volunteers who fund-raise year-round and keep in touch with the local community so they can spot where help is needed.

Jim Cleghorn joined the Variety Club committee 11 years ago and spends his time doing just that.

“It’s great – I get a real kick out of everything we do,” he said. “It’s fabulous when you get the children on the bus or whatever it is and off they go.

“The children we often provide for might not fit into other categories. They don’t need research into their condition, they just need help improving the quality of their life. Kids don’t just want to get by – they want to join in, get about and play sports and things like that.

“We’ve got to help the kids who are going to be here for a long time and have difficulties.”

Jim is also a member of the Sunderland Lions, another fundraising charity for local causes, and says he learned the best way to raise money from his friend of 23 years, Sister Mary Scholastica.

Jim said: “She taught me that whenever someone helps you need to write them a letter and say thank you and that’s very good advice.

“The other thing is that when you mention the Variety Club everyone knows you and wants to help.

“It’s ongoing. We deal with appeals and requests every month. We’ve never yet refused a worthwhile case. It’s mainly schools who get in touch or the professionals who work with children who have special needs who’ll suggest this, that or the other to improve things.

“The one thing that always surprises me is that anything you buy for a disabled child goes up in price!

“People in the North East are very good at giving and they like to see where their money is going. Everything we earn here goes to our kids in the North East.”

With their busiest year behind them, the North division of the Variety Club is branching into new ways of fundraising for 2012.

Chairman Tony Thornton said: “We’ve broken into the technological age and set up a way to donate by text! There are always people to help – the sheer numbers that require assistance is something else.

“If 100 people donate a £1 – the things we can do with that money are fantastic.”

The charity has also started a new initiative called Build a Bus.

Tony said: “We look for sponsors for coaches who usually give £20,000 towards it, sometimes in one go. But we can now work with a company or group over two years and they fundraise bit by bit. They’ll raise enough for the wheels, then the seats and so on.

“They can choose the school or organisation the bus goes to and for the next 10 years that bus is driving around in the community with the company name on it.”

To make a donation between £1 and £10 to the North Division of the Variety Club, text VCNR12 £(amount) to 70070.To find out more about the Build a Bus Scheme, call 214 5959.