In 2006, Anne-Marie Asgari, with the support of other local parents, set up in Richmond upon Thames what was to become known as Skylarks. Originally starting out as a volunteer-run play session for children with additional needs and disabilities, its popularity grew quickly within the community and its operations expanded organically.
How did Skylarks start?
I was working at the time for a Richmond charity providing outreach sessions to families with children who had additional needs and disabilities. When these sessions ended because I was changing jobs, many of the families I had been working with came and asked me for help and advice on where else they could go. They felt there was nowhere for them in the community. At this time I decided to volunteer four or five hours a week to continue to run a playgroup session for these families. At our first session we were completely overwhelmed, we couldn't believe how many families were looking for the environment and support we were offering. After that first play session, we had a meeting with all the other parent volunteers and decided we would set up a charity to continue this service and meet the huge demand we saw.
We had many volunteers from all walks of life helping at the future sessions, providing high quality services for free. We had a bank of 60 volunteers offering support with a huge range of things, from benefit advice to portage and baby massage.
What did you want to achieve?
We wanted to create a hub for families. Somewhere where their children could be well looked after while they received advice and support on family matters relating to disabilities and additional needs. We started with a playgroup and the rest of the activities and services grew organically from the demands and needs of our children and families. Always at the centre of our plans was the desire to offer a 360-degree service and build a strong community within our families and beyond.
What are you most proud of?
As the founding Chair of Skylarks, I am very proud to see the amazing work that is being currently offered to support families with children who have additional needs and disabilities. My personal experience of living through the severe isolation of having a child with physical and complex health needs made me determined to create a welcoming hub for families in Richmond. The very fact that Skylarks continues to grow and offers support to over 900 children makes me very proud. Our success and well-being as a charity was reliant on the dedicated input and selfless commitment of the trustees, staff and volunteers, who provided both practical and innovative solutions to the on-going challenges facing our users. In 2013 I handed over the reins with pride and heartfelt gratitude, knowing that Skylarks was in safe and experienced hands and was set to continue to make a vital difference for our children and families in the years ahead.
What are you doing now?
Since moving to the Isle of Wight, I am now the Chair and Development Director for Toucan Diversity Training, a social enterprise set up in Portsmouth in 2014 that provides equality training in order to promote social inclusion for the most disadvantaged groups in our society. The concept of setting up a social enterprise is a new and exciting venture for me. The idea of starting Toucan Diversity came about after I saw the struggle of many disabled young people trying to obtain a job as most of them were ‘shelved’. I firmly believe that they deserve better and with Toucan Diversity we hope to encourage a social change in attitudes towards disability in general.