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Celebrating Excellence in Making a Difference

Gabby Machell won the Making a Difference Award in the Markel 3rd Sector Care Awards 2019. Here, she shares her story.

I joined Westminster Society for People with Learning Disabilities as a part-time support worker over 30 years ago. In 2007, I was appointed Chief Executive.

We currently operate from Central London and employ over 500 staff. We provide services in a number of London boroughs in a variety of settings which include a specialist nursery, family support, short breaks, registered care and supported living. We provide support to children and adults with a range of needs and disabilities which includes people with profound and multiple disabilities and autism.

On thinking about the Society as it is today, things are in many ways different from when I first started working back in the late 1980s. However, it is clear to me that the principles are fundamentally the same – we exist to make dreams a reality and provide the best life opportunities we can. What is central to this is our understanding that every life has value and every interaction we have with a person with a learning disability can make a profound and positive difference to their lives.

My journey

In writing this article, I have been given the opportunity to reflect on my journey from Nurse to Support Worker to Chief Executive. After qualifying as a Registered General Nurse in 1986, I worked on a surgical ward in a busy London hospital. I loved nursing but I wanted more. I didn’t know what the ‘more’ was until I saw an advert for a part-time support worker based in Westminster. I had worked in Westminster a few years before, so I knew the area well and something about the advert intrigued me. I had a cousin with Downs Syndrome, and as part of my nursing training I had worked with some people with profound disabilities, but this job was something different. I applied, got the job and my life has never been the same since.

At the time, hospitals out in the countryside were closing. These hospitals were the original asylums and people with learning disabilities were coming home, back to their families, back to the places where they were born and, for many, to a life they had never known. Care in the community was happening and we were at the forefront of this pioneering initiative sweeping across the country.

My new job involved working within a small staff team along with social workers and health professionals to support this group of older learning disabled people to begin to understand the world around them, a world which had moved on without them, a world where they were feared and misunderstood, a world which was filled with the most amazing opportunities which were there for the taking. We were working to make dreams a reality. It wasn’t easy and there were many challenges, but we were making a difference.

I knew then that I had made the right decision to change my career. I knew that I could be part of something great and I knew that the most incredible people had entered my life. As a part-time care assistant, I began to understand what it really meant to value people for who they are.

It now seems incredible that, over 30 years later, I am still here. I have been offered the most amazing opportunities along the way. As the organisation grew, more opportunities came my way. I became Assistant Team Manager and was later promoted to Team Manager. Over the next few years, I managed different services, gaining varied experience and later becoming our first Residential Service Manager. After being promoted to another more senior role, I was appointed Chief Executive in 2007.

Values in practice

Understanding the values of the organisation and how these manifest in the support we provide became an essential part of my work and has been fundamental to my contribution to the work of the Society.

A number of years ago, I developed our Values into Practice Framework (VIP), which was an expansion of the work we did in defining our organisational values many years before.

However, I was concerned as to the impact this would actually have on the quality of support we provide. I recognised that it is very easy to produce words and sentiments stating our values and do very little else. It is much more difficult to make our values a reality. The VIP Framework sets out what our values actually mean in practical terms and how they relate to our work. As well as describing some good ways of working, the framework describes poor practices and attitudes, which would undermine everything we believe in and everything we are trying to achieve.

From here, we have moved forward and enshrined our values in every aspect of our work. This includes recruitment, staff appraisal, learning and development competency, and code of conduct. We are delighted to have won Skills for Care’s awards for Best Recruitment Initiatives and Winner of Winners in 2014, and Best Employer of over 250 staff in 2019. We also achieved Care Quality commission’s Outstanding Rating for our domiciliary care services in 2018.

Recent challenges

With the onset of COVID-19, the last few months have been a challenge beyond anything we have ever experienced before. Our support staff have been incredible and, despite everything, the majority have remained strong and committed. Our senior team have become experts in PPE supply and demand and throughout lockdown were out delivering supplies and providing socially distanced support.

Like the rest of the country, we have had to embrace new ways of working, including tele-conferencing; increased remote learning and working from home. We have campaigned for recognition of care staff alongside our NHS colleagues, and lobbied Government for appropriate testing across the sector and for a better understanding of learning disability services.

We continue to supply unending data to myriad stakeholders and interpret and disseminate changes in government guidance for staff, the people we support and their families. We have organised ourselves and prepared for a potential second wave with increased restrictions. We are thinking about the next few months with some trepidation but know our plans are in place and we will continue to do our best.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, and with the hope of less challenging times, our ambitions are to change our name shortly to LDN London (Learning Disability Network London) to better signal the scope of our operations, and to reflect our aims to strengthen our connections in London and improve the quality and range of our services.

We will continue to work to ensure our values are practised in everything we do and that we never lose sight of what is important to us as an organisation. This is what defines us; it is who we are and what we do and it is what drives us on every day.

For me, being awarded the Making a Difference Award is recognition of our Values into Practice initiatives and the work of so many. I’m so honoured to be to be the recipient of this award and I am very grateful for the opportunity to share the work of the Society and celebrate the achievements of this very special organisation.

Gabby Machell is Chief Executive of Westminster Society for People with Learning Disabilities. Email: Twitter: @wspld

The Markel 3rd Sector Care Awards is run specifically for the voluntary care and support sector. Finalists have now been announced for 2020’s awards. Keep up to date on the dedicated website, and follow the awards on Twitter @3rdsectorcare. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

With thanks to our supporters: National Care Forum, Learning Disability England, The Care Provider Alliance, Association of Mental Health Providers and VODG.

The Making a Difference Award was sponsored by Markel.

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