Rocker, mum, daughter, sister, dog walker and volunteer are words that describe Sonya Blakely.
Sonya is the Chairperson of local autism support group ‘The Jigsaw Project’ and two weeks ago they celebrated their first anniversary.
Sonya, the eldest of six children, was born and reared in Derry in 1963 and she has lived in Belleview Avenue, just off Bishop Street, for most of her life.
“I was reared in number five at the bottom the street and here I am living in the top half of the street now - it’s funny how things come full circle,” said Sonya smiling.
“I loved growing up in this street. It was an amazing place back then and still is now.
“I went to school at Nazareth House Primary School and then after that I went on Thornhill College.”
Sonya admits that studying at school wasn’t one of her favourite pastimes growing up but said that, when she thinks back she wishes she had done more.
“It’s not till you don’t have something anymore until you realise that you wish you had made more of it.
“I wish I would have worked harder at school but sure that’s the way it goes.”
Sonya left school at the age of 16 and after working in Kelly’s Supermarket from the age of 14 she went on to get a job working in a newsagents.
After a few years spent working in the local newsagents, Sonya got a job working in Stewart’s Supermarket where she worked her way up to the position of manager of the house and home department.
Sonya left Stewarts and went to work as manager of Hoggs department store in Foyleside but after a few years she gave up full time employment to raise a family.
“At the beginning of my career I had my two eldest children, Gary and Kelly. They are both working in the mental health sector in England now and doing really well for themselves.
“A while later I had my three youngest daughters India, Sara-Leigh and Aimee.”
After the birth of India, Sonya’s life would change forever because a few years after India was born she was diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum.
“It was my dad who noticed something wasn’t quite right with India - he said to me about it and that’s essentially how we got the ball rolling.
“It took a few years but India was diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum when she was six years-old.”
In between times, Sonya became concerned about her other daughter Sarah-Leigh and a while later she was diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum too.
“If I am honest, I found it even more difficult to come to terms with Sarah-Leigh’s diagnosis because her symptoms were so different to India’s but forgetting that, I have two children with autism and it can be tough, believe me.”
One of the aspects of family life that Sonya is acutely aware of is the fact that not only does she have to care for two children with autism but she must also devote herself to her youngest daughter Aimee.
“Sometimes I feel really sorry for Aimee. Sometimes I feel that with everything that happens in the house she can sometimes get left behind but that’s why I always try and do my best by her.
“One of the things we are looking to introduce at ‘The Jigsaw Project’ is a siblings day and it’s where parents can spend time with all of their children - that way no one feels left out.”
Realising the challenges faced by a mother raising not one but two children with autism, Sonya met with a group other mothers and relatives of those with children with autism to set up the group that would go on to be known as ‘The Jigsaw Project’.
“There was very little in the way of provision for families of those with children with autism.
“I knew a few mothers from around Derry who also had children with autism and after getting in contact with Stephen Quigley at the Western Education and Library Board we were given premises over in the Waterside Youth Club beside Good Shepherd PS.
“Stephen has been a great supporter of our group and we use the centre every Friday free of charge.”
‘The Jigsaw Project’ receive almost nothing from public funders and Sonya said their first year’s existence was made possible by the generous work of one local woman.
“I met this woman called Lana Campbell out one night. Lana heard about our group and fair play to her she stuck to her guns and held an ‘80s themed night at the Delacroix and raised over £2000 for the group.
“We are a non-profit making group but with the little money that we do manage to raise we are able to make a difference to almost 30 families in the North West.”
‘The Jigsaw Project’ meet up every Friday in the Waterside Youth Centre. Many of the children who attend the group never socialised or spoke to other children before joining and Sonya said the difference it has made to her two girls is unquantifiable.
“India has always been pretty sociable but ‘The Jigsaw Project’ has benefited Sarah-Leigh greatly.
“I knew we had to do something because they were spending too much time at home stuck in front of computer screens and I wanted them to get out and meet new friends.
“‘The Jigsaw Project’ is perhaps one of the best things I have ever been a part of because not only does it benefit the girls but it benefits me in the sense that it’s a place where I can go and we all feel normal as a family. You never feel like anyone is judging you at ‘The Jigsaw Project’.”
As the group’s chairperson, Sonya helps to organise all of the events and also looks after the Jigsaw Project Facebook page.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of families that are out there who have been affected by autism.
“Being part of ‘The Jigsaw Project’ has also helped me feel like I am hopefully making a difference.
“Some of the children who use the group had never been outside of their own house until they came to ‘The Jigsaw Project’ but now they all look forward to going to the club every Friday.”
Although delighted with what the group has achieved over the last 12 months Sonya said there is still a lot to do.
“I am not going to lie, when it comes to provision of services for families with children who have autism there is still much, much more that can be done.
“I like to tell people when they meet a child with autism they have met one child with autism - it’s wrong for them to think that all autistic children are the same.
“The talent within our little group is unbelievable. We have some amazing artists and Circle of Support are organising an autism awareness day at the beginning of April in the Millennium Forum and I would hope we would be able to exhibit some of the children’s art.
“I hope all my children grow up to be happy and they should be proud of themselves because I am.
“I’d also like to go to all of the schools in Derry to give talks about autism because we have to normalise it within society too.”
When she’s not busy organising the next outing to the zoo or the beach for ‘The Jigsaw Project’ or looking after her three girls, Sonya loves listening to old heavy metal bands but she said despite her best efforts her mind always ends up drifting back to her children.
“I love all the bands like ‘ACDC’ and ‘White Snake’ so when I get the chance I turn my music up loud or I head to see the tribute bands at Mason’s but if I am honest, the girls are my life and if no matter what it is, if I can ever do anything to make their lives better I always do - I just love them to bits.”
For more information on ‘The Jigsaw Project’ visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/sonya.jigsawproject