A chat over a cup of tea is something mum of two Sonya Blakely looks forward to every week.
Sonya, from the Bishop Street area of Derry, has two daughters who are both on the autism spectrum and every Friday afternoon she takes the two girls along to the Jigsaw Project in the Waterside Youth Club.
The Jigsaw Project is a support network for local families with children who are on the autism spectrum.
“The Jigsaw Project is my lifeline - I don’t know where I would be without it,” said Sonya.
On Friday the Jigsaw Project celebrated its first anniversary with a party in the Waterside Youth Club.
Friday’s get together is but one of hundreds the group have organised throughout the last 12 months and Sonya said she has noticed an immense improvement in both her daughters since they started attending.
“A few of us parents with children who are on the autism spectrum got together last January and we were all saying the same thing.
“We wanted a place to take our children, where they would feel comfortable and not be afraid.
“We approached the Western Education Library Board (WELB). Stephen Quigley works for the WELB and he couldn’t have been more supportive. He sorted us out with a premises that we were permitted to use free of charge once a week.
“We started on March 7 last year and we’ve been going ever since. In the first week, 19 children came to the youth club, but now we have over 40 children and 25 families taking part.
“We are full to capacity at the minute but we always make sure to try our best not to turn anyone away.
“I suppose the reason we are called the Jigsaw Project is because when all of the children and parents meet up every week, it feels like a jigsaw has come together. It’s a great feeling.”
Sonya is the group’s chairperson and along with Shauna Griffith, Rosaleen Brolly and Michelle McGowan, she forms the Jigsaw Project’s committee.
Since the group formed a year ago the members made the Waterside Youth Club their base but they are always busy organising trips away to places such as Belfast Zoo and commendably, they became the first autism group to take part in Derry’s St. Patrick’s Day Spring Carnival last year.
According to Sonya, the Jigsaw Project would not be able to do what it does for families around this town “if it wasn’t for the help and support of our volunteers, Dynasty restaurant who sponsor us and all of our friends and our families.”
One of the ways in which the Jigsaw Project tackles everyday issues affecting children on the autism spectrum is by encouraging their siblings who are not on the spectrum to engage with them as much as possible.
“When we set up the Jigsaw Project we wanted to create a place where families and children affected by autism could come without fear of being judged or looked at.
“Many of the parents who come to the Jigsaw Project will tell you of times they’ve been out shopping and all of a sudden their child will become very agitated. A large crowd or loud music might be a small thing to you and me but to children and people with autism it can be something that causes them great distress.
“I can remember many times when one of my girls might have experienced something similar and people would have been looking at her thinking she is spoilt but what they don’t know is that she is autistic.”
The Jigsaw Project also encourage the children to be creative and expressive and in recent months several of their members have seen their work on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
“We have some tremendous artists and ridiculously talented young people in the group. We want the Jigsaw Project to be a platform for them to show off their talents. They have so much to offer.
“We would also hope to go into local schools over the next 12 months to speak to children about autism and to help them understand it more.
“If the next 12 months are as fruitful as the last year has been then we at the Jigsaw Project will be over the moon,” she said smiling.
For more details on the Jigsaw Project visit its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sonya.jigsawproject