Services to disabled children to be cut

LITTLE STAR: Murray Wilkinson with daughter Lydia, 7, who has Down syndrome. Wilkinson is completing a charity bike ride to raise funds for Christchurch’s Champion Centre.
LITTLE STAR: Murray Wilkinson with daughter Lydia, 7, who has Down syndrome. Wilkinson is completing a charity bike ride to raise funds for Christchurch’s Champion Centre.

As Christchurch's Champion Centre looks to cut services in the face of hard financial times, ASHLEIGH STEWART visits a family who have reaped the benefits of the centre and are now giving back.

Lydia Wilkinson learned to sing before she learned to speak.

The 7-year-old's love of performing began when she was only about a year old and having trouble communicating.

Her parents initially tried sign language, but it was only after she was introduced to music that she started to form words.

Lydia, who was born with Down syndrome and two holes in her heart, learned to love the performing arts at the Champion Centre - where the services that aided her breakthrough are now in danger.

The largest and longest-running centre-based early intervention programme in the country may this year be forced to cut crucial services due to funding issues.

It will affect more than 165 Canterbury families, like the Wilkinsons.

And one of the first things to go will be group music sessions.

Lydia's love for her brand new red ukulele, her passion for dancing and her commanding stage presence would be non-existent without the music therapy she participated in at the centre, mother Anita said.

"It's her form of expression."

Lydia had since gone on to "thrive" at mainstream school.

Her classmates were just a year younger, and she received only 16 hours with a teacher aide a week.

While she enjoyed handwriting and playing with her large group of friends, she knew what she liked best. "I like to party," Lydia said.

Father Murray has taken the centre's plight in his stride and will cycle 1100 kilometres in a week with the hope of raising $10,000 as part of cycle challenge Kiwi Brevet.

His riding companion Martin Nichols' daughter Lily also has Down syndrome and is about the same age as Lydia.

"It was good meeting other families going through the same thing - it's the only place you feel normal," he said.

"We've always wanted to give something back."

The Champion Centre supports 150 children born prematurely or with disabilities until they are school age, when they are transitioned into school.

The centre has served almost 2000 children to date.

Centre director Susan Foster-Cohen was firm in saying it would be an "absolute last resort", but aspects of privately-funded services would be first in the firing line.

The centre was on track to post a similar $216,986 deficit this year to what it did in 2013, which would be compounded by some other financial woes.

"The difference is this year we have no reserves left," Foster-Cohen said.

"This year we've got no assets to offset them either. It's really quite worrying."

This year would also mark the end of the centre's "rent in advance" period.

It had not yet been told how much the Canterbury District Health Board would charge it for its lodgings at Burwood Hospital.

"It's like waiting for a lead weight to drop on us."

Government funding covers about 65 per cent of the near-$2 million cost of running the centre. The rest is sourced from applications to trusts, appeals for donations and fundraising events.

However, funding from the Ministry of Health left a $200,000 shortfall in the cost of health-related operations, Foster-Cohen said. There was a similar shortage in funding from the Ministry of Education.

"We have a block grant for health and a statement of what we're expected to deliver and we deliver it. The problem is, the block grant doesn't cover it."

The centre operated with "extremely lean overheads", meaning "there isn't a lot left to cut".

Specialist programmes such as music and computer-supported learning would be terminated, and some children would receive no therapy sessions at all.

If children with more severe conditions arrived, they would bump others off the waiting list. The centre could only employ about half of the staff in the family support team.

A new staff member had been sought to help with fundraising.

"People don't know about us until they need us, and we're easy to ignore," Foster-Cohen said.

"But we're providing a service that is in many ways, equivalent to Ronald McDonald House.

"It's an essential part of prevention for early childhood in Christchurch.

"People don't ask to have a child with a disability and they deserve to receive a service for their child to reach their full potential - and this is what they need."

Other social agencies spoken to by The Press said last year had been tough to fund services.

Cancer Society Canterbury West Coast chief executive Liz Chesterman said the earthquakes had changed "a lot of security".

"There's a lot of additional requests on the donor community."

The society had had to shift this year and it was a "real challenge" to find new lodgings within their budget, she said.

The Press