LFB firefighter Wayne Jackson has received our support in the past for both his physical and mental health, and more recently attended one of our Child and Family Weeks – which he says helped his autistic son hugely.

Life can throw curveballs at us when we least expect it, and for Wayne Jackson, they sadly all seemed to come at once a couple of years ago.

However, he says reaching out for a helping hand from us meant he and his family received the support they needed to find a way through the challenges they were facing – and he’d recommend anyone who feels “up against a brick wall” to do the same.

Wayne, a firefighter with London Fire Brigade, first received our support in 2006. Since then, he’s had physical and mental health support, before more recently attending one of our Child and Family Weeks which he says was a welcome break for both him and his wife, but proved particularly beneficial for his son Daniel, 6, who has autism, and their daughter Millie, 7.

“I first experienced the Charity’s support in 2006. I had quite a traumatic incident involving some civilians who lost their lives,” says Wayne. “I blew a disc while trying to save someone’s life, getting them out of a car.

“I was taken to the same hospital the casualties went to, so obviously I not only had the trauma of the injury, but the trauma of the job as well… it was all interlinked and I was in a really bad space for quite a while with it.

“I ended up telling a few people at work about it and they suggested I spoke to the Charity. I was invited to Harcombe House and received intensive physical therapy. I was a break away which I really needed at the time, which in turn benefitted me mentally.”

In the years since, Wayne has remained in touch with us and knew he had our support should he ever need it. And that time came around the start of the pandemic, when he, his wife Sarah and their two children all got Covid and began struggling to cope in the months that followed.

“We had quite a complicated time having our kids; we had them both through IVF and my wife Sarah sadly suffers from ME too,” says Wayne. “It was a massive journey for us both, then Covid came on the radar…

“All four of us ended up getting it, and myself and Sarah suffered from Long Covid for months after. We were locked down in the house, running out of food, and relying on local volunteers to do shops for us because we couldn’t get deliveries.

“The thing that scared me the most was the kids having it, but luckily they bounced back really quickly.

“I had a month off work with Covid and then unfortunately I had a chest infection around the same time and it got to the point I had an ambulance come out because I was gasping for air.”

Wayne adds of the months that followed: “While we pulled through all that, we noticed Daniel was having a lot of issues. He was showing a lot of indicators of autism, but we knew nothing about it and just assumed it was a phase – a bit like terrible twos.

“He changed hugely within a couple of months, massive meltdowns and sensory issues, and we were struggling to cope with it all. We had three, four things happen at the same time and it was just too much to cope with. That’s when we got in touch with the Charity again.”

Wayne and Sarah began speaking to one of our Welfare Caseworkers and were invited for a week’s stay at Harcombe House for some time to rest and recharge as a family.

“Our Welfare Caseworker has been superb at checking in on us to make sure we’re not in a bad way,” says Wayne. “We’d just got into a bit of a jam, it was quite frightening. You can only talk about so much at work and you sometimes need to get some professional help.

“At Harcombe House we were away in a bungalow and it was a circuit breaker really for us to all reset. One thing I’ve learnt is, when you get to the stage where you hit a brick wall, you’ve got to reassess and break that circuit. You’re flogging a dead horse otherwise.”

While there, Wayne was told about our Child and Family Weeks and he immediately got in touch to see if they could attend one this year. They were offered a place in April and jumped at the chance.

“We were there with about 10 other families and most of the other kids had neurodiversity challenges too,” he recalls. “Once you start chatting, you find out that people have faced similar challenges to you and you start bouncing around ideas on how to deal with them. The kids could have their little meltdowns and no one would mind.

“The guys running the course, wow, what a credit to you. They were superb.”

As part of the week, the families were invited to The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, an activity we were piloting that week. There, he says, they saw Daniel really interacting for the first time – and the change in him when around the animals was incredible.

“Daniel is borderline ADHD, autistic and dyspraxia, so he’s got quite a full bag,” says Wayne. “But seeing the animals and the sensory side of things when he was around them was brilliant. It was so unique.

“Watching him interacting with the donkey was amazing. I got a photo of him hugging one which was something we never expected to see. Truly amazing.”

It wasn’t just Daniel who benefitted from the week away either.

Wayne adds: “Our daughter Millie has obviously witnessed a lot with Daniel over the last couple of years herself and that’s meant she suffers from a little bit of anxiety as well. She’s so protective of him and he’s really good at calming him down, but she also soaks up a lot of what he’s feeling.

“We were very aware she needed some respite as well, and the week provided that. It was a great experience and something we’re very honoured to be able to access. We’re so blessed in the fire service to have it, and all credit to the staff who work here because they’re all here for the same aim, to make everyone feel comfortable. And it’s a testament to them really.

“I’d advise it to anyone, don’t be ashamed to put your hand up if you need some help. These guys are all geared up for it.”

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