A few weeks ago you may have seen me talking on social media about Speed Friending at the Lighthouse Union Store in Leeds. Well, the reason was this, it was to raise awareness of the fabulous Lighthouse Union School and charity store. The charity was founded by as team of people who wanted to create something new and much-needed in the area. The school which is in North Leeds is a school for young people aged 11 to 19 with an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) or a related communication disorder. The school is also Yorkshire’s first special free school, offering a highly personalised education which combines national curriculum with vocational subjects and valuable life, social and communication skills.
At the event we were told all about why the team of wonderful people along with backing of the Department of Education, set up the free school that provides young people with the support they need to enable them to learn, thrive and achieve in life. Lighthouse School was planned for eight years and is now almost four years old. The goal was to create a school that not only supported autistic children, but also their families and the community too. The team clearly put their blood, sweat and tears into their dream and this really came across at the event, it was really lovely to hear the story from the beginning until the present day where the micro-businesses are now such a success. The school is also growing from strength to strength and all the students are happy, confident and successful learners with great futures.
So, where does the Lighthouse Union Store come in? Well, the store was opened as a micro-business as part of Lighthouse School to provide a service to the community, as well as a base for young people with SEND to access supported work placements. The business is used for post-sixteen students to provide opportunities in work experience, supported internships and further qualifications and training to prepare for the world of work. The store is also partnered with West SILC and Leeds City College so that the students can access the work place with trained job coaches too, which is fantastic.
The cafe sells hot drinks, lovely cakes and cold food too, it’s a really lovely light space and the perfect place to enjoy a spot of lunch with friends. The Lighthouse Union’s aim is to create more micro businesses that will self-fund and provide a range of vocational experiences and possibly paid work for students and the reason for which is that they firmly believe that they have talents vital for ANY work place. Their mantra is simply, ‘Creating Equal Life Chances’.
The event at the store went amazingly well. All attendees all sent a photograph (passport style) of ourselves and the PR team created masks for us to wear whilst we ‘Speed-Friended’ each other. The idea was pretty simple, but interestingly the results were extremely powerful. On the night we learned that those with Autism often fail to recognise facial expression or acknowledgement during conversation, the experiment was to essentially attempt to (partly) feel what that may feel like when meeting new people and also having conversations with those you already know. I for one felt immediately frustrated and was quite shocked at just how much I obviously look for recognition, expressions and also acknowledgement during conversations.
It really was an eye-opening experience and it also made me feel both sad at what sufferers go through but also proud of the work that goes into leading and developing a ‘normal life’ which, of course must be extremely difficult. It was really shocking to hear that currently, there are less than 7% of individuals with a learning disability and 15% of individuals with an Autistic Spectrum Condition in employment, I am supportive of the Lighthouse Union’s mission to turn this around, focusing on aligning employment experiences, strengths and talents to the right opportunities!
After the Speed-Friending we had lots of time to mingle over Prosecco, tuck into the tasty buffet, nosey at the wonderful selection of cards and gifts the shop has on offer and also have a rummage in the shop’s ‘pre-loved’ section. The staff and volunteers do their best to choose quality items for the store and from seeing it personally, I can tell you that they are doing an excellent job! I spied some designer goods, cool vintage dresses, lovely childrens wear and also lots of fabulous shoes! I also left with a generously filled goody bag too, which included items that are sold in store, special thanks to: Bakery 164 Barbara Mann Dance Academy Bloom Bakers Dogburgs Evolution Gravity UK Jameson’s Cafe & Tea Room Search Laboratory & Rollette Cafe.
The Lighthouse Union Store is situated at 76 Otley Old Road in Cookridge in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Why not pay them a visit? You can also find out more from their website or on their social media channels: Facebook Twitter & Instagram