For nearly 40 years it has been a lifeline for adults with learning disabilities, relying entirely on fund-raising and donations to provide a much-needed service.
But at the end of this month the Stepping Stones Club, formed in the early 1970s by the late Jimmy Wilson of the social work department to provide social activities for disabled folk, is to close and the two women who have run it, for 30 and 22 years respectively, Betty Tulloch and Elizabeth Johnston, will retire.
Times have changed, they say, and there is now so much more awareness of disability and much more provision where social needs are being met.
Mrs Tulloch said that Mr Wilson had approached the Red Cross with a view to starting up the club. She already worked for the organisation, and started her involvement with Stepping Stones in 1980 (although the club does not itself have an association with the Red Cross).
When the club started, she said, it had been badly needed. “At that time there was no disability [club] to meet social needs. Now that we’re retiring we feel all our aims have been met. We’re not leaving a gap – if a black hole was being left that would have been difficult.”
Both she and Mrs Johnston have thoroughly enjoyed their time with Stepping Stones, which met fortnightly in the Freefield Centre. Mrs Johnston said: “It was an opportunity to meet and chat. [The adults with disabilities] like to interact. They could all be together. They spent their days in different places and they don’t all necessarily meet except in social situations – we were able to provide that.”
The social evenings would consist of cards, board games, eight o’clocks, which were very much enjoyed, and sometimes entertainment in the form of music or line dancing, which proved very popular. “We were fortunate everyone was willing to provide entertainment free of charge.”
The club was very active in providing outings too. Every summer there would be a monthly outing to a hotel for a bar supper or to a public hall where the hall committee would cater for the group and where there would be musical entertainment.
Sometimes there were all-day bus trips to Yell or Whalsay when folk would be called upon to help. “There was lots of laughter and we got enjoyment seeing them enjoy themselves, it was nothing sophisticated – and they loved the ferry.”
The days would include a lunch at a country hall and a browse round the charity shops.
If a trip on the ferry sounds hard work for a group of around 20 with ages ranging from 16 to pension age, excursions to the mainland – there have now been 23 of them – were even more ambitious.
This was the high point of the year for Stepping Stones, said Mrs Tulloch. “Going on P & O or NorthLink was a highlight. They felt the holiday started there.”
Mrs Johnston said: “We had to be vigilant and responsible.”
The responsibility continued on the mainland, when, driven by a Leask’s bus, the group, usually about 18 people, made its way to university self-catering accommodation around Scotland. The groups stayed in halls of residence in Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling, among other places, latterly enjoying en suite rooms, with the helpers cooking meals. Some mothers of the club members would go on these trips. “They enjoyed it too and we appreciated their help.”
Amazingly, the club never had any external funding for its activities.
Mrs Tulloch said: “We never sought funding, we raised all the money ourselves from general donations and charity shops, an annual raffle as well as events like musical coffee evenings where we had the cream of Shetland talent performing.
“People would donate money from sponsored walks and the Grand Relay Race [organised by workers at Sullom Voe] and Peter Malcolmson donated £5,000 from taking part in the London Marathon.”
The club now has 23 members who have almost never missed a meeting. It has been open to people from all parts of Shetland who would otherwise not have met, but this has changed with the advent of Independent Living which houses people with learning disabilities in the town.
Looking back on the years, Mrs Johnston said: “There are lots of highlights, it’s been very rewarding for us both. We were rewarded every fortnight when they went home laughing. It has been a honour and a privilege that folk entrusted their vulnerable family members to us.”
And Mrs Tulloch said of the club members: “Some have been coming every fortnight from when I started so we must have been doing something right.”