Gerry & Mel. Pic courtesy of DRUM.

To the Beat of a Different Drum

6th September 2019

Kathy Walton visits a local centre that’s transforming the lives of adults with acquired disabilities…

Imagine what it must be like waking up to find that you have had a stroke. Yesterday you were running your own business and enjoying sport; today you can’t walk or feed or wash yourself without help. Your partner has to give up work to care for you, your retirement dreams vanish into thin air and you can’t even visit your grandchildren.

As any adult with an acquired disability (such as Parkinson’s, MS or a spinal injury) will tell you that when something like this happens without warning, it is all too easy to sink into an abyss of depression, frustration and anger. What’s more, you feel helpless and lonely.

Fortunately, for a group of some 80 physically disabled adults in Watford, there is a beacon of hope in the shape of DRUM in North Watford – and from the moment I walk in to spend a day here, I see why users call it their ‘life-saver.’ DRUM (disability, recreation, unity and movement), is a remarkable charity run for and by adults with physical disabilities. It was founded in 1994 by a group of people who had left hospital with a disability and met in respite care. Their aim was to provide a space where they could meet for art and poetry to cheer themselves up.

With its 25th anniversary coming up, DRUM continues to offer daily sessions in art, craft, singing, yoga, Tai Chi and dancing, as well as a chance to up-cycle furniture, tend the charity’s garden, see a hairdresser or chiropodist or have a therapeutic massage, all under one roof.

DRUM is housed within a former Victorian primary school on Southwold Road, Watford, but if I was expecting clinical green tiles and the smell of disinfectant, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, I find a bright welcoming building, with sunshine streaming in through the windows, humorous and colourful art on the walls, funky blinds and a kitchen (where a delicious lunch is cooked each day) that wouldn’t look out of place in a glossy magazine. Even the loo is attractive! The whole place feels like a trendy architectural practice out to impress clients: a far cry from the stereotypical HQ of a hard-up charity.

For the past 18 years, DRUM has been managed by the irrepressible Sarah Sullivan, who shows me around. We begin in the former school hall, where I join an art class, and meet 91-year-old Pam who is working on a watercolour of the sea. She has severe arthritis and had become so depressed that she could barely eat. “I was housebound and isolated and couldn’t walk very well,” she explains. “Then one day I passed DRUM on my walk with my physiotherapist and have been coming here every morning since. It has brought me back to life.”

Sitting next to Pam is Anne, 64, from Bushey. She had a stroke and contracted meningitis when she was 39. Disabled overnight, she spent eight months in a coma, with further two years in hospital, followed by nine months of rehab.

She now uses a wheelchair and comes to DRUM twice a week courtesy of the charity’s minibus, and admits “I’d go stir crazy without it. It’s been a lifeline.” She shows me a selection of her gorgeous water colours of flowers that she hopes to sell at DRUM’s annual fund-raising exhibition on September 21. “I couldn’t paint before but Emma [art tutor] is brilliant. Art brings me out of myself.”

Emma has been teaching art and papier mâché at DRUM for nearly 20 years and says she never cease to be amazed by what her students achieve. “Often they haven’t done art since they were at school and, after a stroke, they have to learn to use their weaker hand. Gradually, they get used to working with certain materials and they can surprise themselves with what they do.” Fellow art tutor Kathy Foster from Chorleywood agrees. “It is so gratifying to see how engrossed people become once they find their own specialisation and produce some wonderful work.”

The benefits are not all on one side either, as Emma explains: “It makes me really happy to see people enjoying themselves and to see them develop. We have such a laugh and I feel blessed, because it doesn’t feel like a job. We are like a family.”

Next I join the dance class, where to my delight, people who use wheelchairs or walk with a stick are all taking part, moving to a Michael Jackson hit and to You can leave your hat on, made famous by the male strippers from The Full Monty. The hall is a lovely airy room with ‘signature’ wall paper, nothing like the shabby church halls where I went for ballet as a child. No wonder DRUM’s users say how uplifted and respected they feel by coming here.

Our choreographer MJ teaches inclusive dance in universities and for Para Dance UK and, like everyone here, his enthusiasm is infectious. One guy, who can only use his left arm, waves in time to the beat. “Shake what your mother gave you,” encourages Sarah from the sidelines, eliciting a few risqué remarks from the blokes.

Some of my fellow dancers are only in their 20s and 30s and have become disabled as the result of an accident or progressive condition. Their lives won’t be easy, but everyone is smiling and as we throw our Trilby hats in the air, I can’t help feeling that the line ‘You give me reason to live’ should be DRUM’s anthem.

DRUM receives some county council funding but half its running costs have to be met by fund-raising efforts. When the building was refurbished in 2016, it took an army of volunteers and staff more than three years to transform the premises in the evenings and at weekends. Fortunately, most of the materials were donated by local businesses, including Décor Tiles, Clements Travis Perkins and Benchmark Kitchens. DRUM also received a large donation from the Bert & Sarah Hooper Trust.

Students from local schools, who were taking part in the Dragon’s Apprentice scheme, the Prince’s Trust and the National Citizenship Service helped raise funds and mucked in with redecorating. Some even found their own lives enriched by the experience; one, a volunteer with The Prince’s Trust and another, a school refuser, both enjoyed their voluntary work at DRUM so much that they went on to train as support workers.

From what I observed at DRUM, working and volunteering there is a labour of love and being a user of its services is a privilege and a joy, even – especially – for those whose lives have been turned upside down.

Sarah Sullivan sums up the mission beautifully: “Becoming disabled through a sudden accident or illness changes lives and can have a devastating effect on that person’s life, their families and the people around them. Our job is to make people feel better, get their confidence and independence back and give their carers a break.”

Artwork made by DRUM users will be on sale at their annual fund-raising exhibition, on Saturday 21 September at DRUM, Parkgate Community Centre,
Southwold Road, Watford.

For details about DRUM’s services and the exhibition, or to make a donation, see www.drum.btck.co.uk

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