Bronwen Hewitt has spent more than 30 years campaigning for the right to quality services for children and adults with profound physical disabilities. Her dedication has resulted in a groundbreaking new venture at former agricultural college Seale-Hayne, where many struggling children and adults have been given a new lease of life. Reporter LAURA DALE met the chief executive of Dame Hannah Rogers Trust at the transformed site
I WAS hoping they wouldn’t get my double chin!” Bronwen Hewitt jokes as she holds her head up, lengthening her neck before adding: “I was thin once!”
Standing in the impressive quadrangle at Seale-Hayne it’s a cold spring morning and the photographer told her she didn’t need her coat.
Ten minutes later, inside her cosy office, she’s finally warming up.
Her self-deprecating humour masks slight discomfort at being in the spotlight — something which has been unavoidable since the trust’s successful bid for Seale-Hayne.
She said: “I remember the first press conference when we could announce the trust’s purchase.
“I had kidney stones and I was bent over in the chair, terrified of getting up to talk.
“Public speaking and press attention is something I’ve had to get used to.”
Bronwen has worked for ‘Hannahs’ for most of her life.
The trust, which also runs a school at Ivybridge, provides education, therapy, care and respite for children and young people with profound physical disabilities, as well as adults.
Bronwen’s enthusiasm and belief in the work of the trust is apparent in the Seale-Hayne project, aimed at providing the best-quality services for both disabled and able-bodied people to enjoy together.
She said: “Working with children and people with disabilities, you soon realise they are just children and people.
“What I want for them, and for thousands of young people after I am gone, is the same opportunities my own children have had.
“They want to have a social life and they want the opportunity to achieve their aspirations.
“We are able to offer those services in a truly integrated way, which doesn’t segregate them from life and all it has to offer.
“People from all over Devon and beyond want to come here and it’s filling up day by day.”
The gallery showcases local talents, the cafe is buzzing and the foundations have been laid for outdoor pursuits.
The music and rehearsal rooms are busy with aspiring musicians and practising bands.
Corporate groups and fellow charities meet in the conference rooms and other organisations have stayed on site and are using the facilities on a regular basis.
There have been two weddings so far with eight more booked this year, murder mystery nights, balls, fetes and music events have resulted in a choc-a-bloc calendar.
There is also a resident blacksmith, with jewellers and artists running their businesses and running workshops around the site.
Other proposals in the pipeline include rehabilitation and therapy programmes, respite opportunities and animal therapies.
Michelin-starred chef Peter Gorton works with the trust to produce tasty menus for the cafe, which they hope to open for evening events.
In the midst of all this flurry, it’s easy to forget that Seale-Hayne has not only helps but employs a number of adults with learning difficulties or physical disabilities.
Bronwen said: “There’s a lovely young lady on the autistic spectrum who, having been given the opportunity to work with us, has just blossomed. She is off benefits for the first time in seven years. The other day she said to me, ‘I’m independent at last!’”
During the interview Bronwen lists endless examples of how Hannahs has helped people to realise their potential and made them feel part of a team.
“There’s a loneliness which features a lot with adults with disabilities. Watching them mix is magical,” she said.
“Here they can access social activities as well as being part of a team.”
Staff numbers have swelled since they opened from six to 55 and more jobs will be created.
The charity relies on grants and fundraising and so, with state-of-the-art equipment costing thousands of pounds, projects have to be undertaken within financial constraints.
Funds have been spent on a kitchen controlled by the touch of a button, and a music sensory room where severely disabled people can compose music using the blink of an eye.
The trust has recently secured grants for a hydrotherapy pool and music facilities, and respite care is next on Bronwen’s list.
She said: “The trick is not to think about how much there is to do. We are operating slightly hand-to-mouth at the moment and it will be like that for a while.
“I have had worrying moments, but I would not have taken the trust into this if I did not know it was going to be a special place or if I thought it was going to be a risk.
“It is a huge responsibility to make it work, but there are lots of exciting things going on and people are approaching us now we are starting to grow.”
If Bronwen’s boundless energy starts to take a dive, she remembers an encounter with a teenage boy from her first year with the trust.
She said: “He was 16 years old and in a wheelchair. He was profoundly disabled and you would not have known there was much going on except for a speech synthesiser which he could operate with one finger.
“I remember someone patronising him and patting him on the head. He typed out a not-so-polite version of ‘get stuffed’ and I thought ‘good on you’.
“He left school at 16 and one of our staff members went to visit him at an old people’s home. He was in the corner of a room looking out of the window. His speech synthesiser had been broken for six months and he was surrounded by 80 and 90 year olds.”
This kind of appalling neglect is still commonplace making places like Seale-Hayne not only groundbreaking, but essential.
Bronwen said: “If you take on something like this you don’t take it on lightly.”
And as her own children have grown up and moved from their Plympton home, she has been able to dedicate more time to Hannahs.
Brought up in Saltash, Bronwen met her husband in 1972, grape picking in France.
She said: “I went out there with some college friends. I was hoping to meet a tall, dark, handsome Frenchman and I came home with a short, blond Irishman. We were married six or seven months later.”
Her husband Art is a retired teacher, originally from Northern Ireland. The couple have two children, Owen, 25, a talented musician and the music manager for the trust, and Lealah, 22, a psychology student.
“When I had my children I was able to change my work times and I was working at Ivybridge, so I had school holidays,” said Bronwen.
“I never missed any of my children’s activities — a sports day or a nativity play — and I was usually there to meet them at the school gate.
“As they have grown older I have put more into my work.
“I’m working seven days a week at the moment. When you have worked for a place for this long, you can’t help it become part of your life.”
In November 2008, Bronwen’s world was turned upside down when her son was involved in a horrific, near fatal, car accident.
Owen was trapped for 30 minutes in the Honda CRX, which had spun out of control and flipped over on an unclassified road in Plympton.
Owen’s injuries were so severe Bronwen and the rest of the family were warned he may not survive.
Bronwen said: “It is now two years after the accident and Owen has faced many challenges. We are very lucky to still have him with us.
“When Owen was in hospital, one of the lads at Ivybridge sent him messages through his speech communications aid — it was an incredible gesture.”
Sadly, that disabled young man and others like him have to battle to get the services they are entitled to.
Bronwen said: “Parents of children with disabilities have to battle to get what’s right for their child and it never ends. It’s a torture.
“Most of the parents have had to go to tribunal and fight for funding to get them into Hannahs at Ivybridge.
“I would not like my child to be in that situation. It’s not acceptable and we will.
“A lot of people say Dame Hannahs grabs you. Seale-Hayne and Ivybridge are really special places, it’s a special ethos and the children and young people are very special.”
And what she is endearingly unaware of, is that her guidance and leadership has been the driving force behind it.
For information about the trust and its activities or to make a donation visit www.hannahssealehayne.com or call 01626 325800.