Balsall Heath C.A.T.S is a voluntary organization dedicated to providing individual quality support to special needs children and families from hard to reach ethnic minority communities living in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham. It aims to promote inclusion through catalysing attitudinal changes toward children with disabilities, while expanding the social opportunities of such children through inclusive play and outdoor activities like taking the children on visits to cinemas, bowling games, and engaging the children in confidence building activities. A fundamental constant in its seven year experience has been guaranteeing it remains accessible at all times to all its service users, regardless of a child’s particular situation.
Nazreen Bi, C.A.T.S’ Development Co-ordinator, clarifies that CATS is not a respite; it is an active support service backstopping parents and the wider Balsall Heath community, helping them to understand that beyond the special needs of their children, those children are entitled to opportunities in life like everyone else. The project offers help and support to parents to accept the special status of their children, advocating the notion that special needs do not dampen a child’s potential and that these children have entitlements to opportunities in life. Their conditions simply require differently structured interventions.
Motivated by the philosophy that disability is not inability, a special part of CATS’ work is building relationships within communities, encouraging acceptance, belongingness, combating social labelling, and breaking down barriers with the view to encouraging access to services by its special clientele. The project is about changing attitudes and about creating visibility – to flag these issues and entrench awareness. It also catalyses communal thought processes on how better to serve the needs of everybody within their social contexts in an inclusive manner.
Currently, the service supports 60 children on a weekly basis, creating a lifeline for families that were isolated and excluded from mainstream services because of their additional needs and were struggling to find support. Its service strategy adopts a highly personalised model, stylized to the special needs of the child and their families.
Owing to space issues, the service cannot support more children at the moment, although there is a demonstrated need to expand this service to reach more families in need. This is CATS’ vision – to continue growing in capacity in order to reach more hard to reach families. Living and working within the communities it serves, CATS has succeeded in winning the trust of parents within the Balsall Heath area, and this uniquely places the Project at a niche position to reach hard to reach ethnic minority families among the Asian, Pakistani, Yemeni and Black Afro-Caribbean communities.
CATS is succeeding in pushing for the realization of the concept of total inclusiveness within its sphere of influence. To entrench this gain, CATS is employing sport as a medium to communicate its mission. It has gained acceptance within the community because of demonstrating and proving its track record, building trust with the families it works with, and through enjoying a strong volunteer base drawn from within the community. CATS’ volunteers include men, who offer manual handling and other support services to the programme.
CATS made its first external funding application in 2010, and was successful in securing a contract. Nazreen Bi attributes this first-time success to functioning internal systems of governance. CATS has all policies relevant to its operational levels in place, and these have strongly influenced its business practice and management systems.
As a small organization however, CATS has faced and is continually surmounting various challenges. It constantly combats the external perception that small means inefficient or unprofessional, which has in the past operated as a barrier to funding – besides the challenge of competing against larger more established organisations. Without adequate funding, resourcing (both human and institutional capital) becomes a challenge. Thanks to its strong volunteer support and the internal governance structures however, CATS has managed to sustain service provisioning even within a financially constrained environment. This determination is driven by the basic reality that no other organization is meeting the needs of its clientele within its community.
In seven years of challenging operational realities, CATS has never given up. Nazreen says:
“We enjoy what we do. It is very rewarding to see the joy that comes with expanded opportunities on the faces and lives of the children we serve. The clear evidence of the impact of our work motivates our daily commitment to keep at it. Without this social reward, we would have given up. At the heart of our conviction is the understanding that equality of opportunity is a universal public good.”
To overcome some of the operational and organizational challenges, CATS forged close working relationships with external organizations within the sector, from which it drew varying levels of strategic support. This network includes brap, the Balsall Heath Forum, Dens of Equality, and The Collective. Some of the services it has accessed through these organisations include HR and infrastructure support, bid writing and business practice support, training and experience sharing, as well as information on best practice, funding schemes and volunteer brokerage. Nazreen is emphatic these networks are absolutely essential to C.A.T.S.’s success. Nazreen says she cherishes its relationship with brap because the business support services it provides is given by professionals who themselves have first-hand success in business. She says that from her relationship with brap, she has entrenched a “can do” attitude in the work of Balsall Heath CATS.