Devastated parents of vulnerable children are pleading for a charity in Abbey Wood to be kept open because a council-imposed rent hike means it could be forced to close.
Greenwich Toy and Leisure Library is a vital lifeline for families whose children have special needs, offering them somewhere safe to play.
The charity has been operating for nearly 50 years but faces closure next month as cash-strapped Greenwich Council says it will no longer be funding a cheap rent for the building in Abbey Grove.
Volunteers are upset. Parents are angry and confused. They told the Local Democracy Reporter Service how vital the Toy Library is as their children ran around playing on the hottest day of the year, jumping in ball pits and dancing in a specially-designed sensory room that is so popular even adults ask to use it.
Manager Deborah Cavill has worked at the charity for two decades. She said that without it those kids would have nowhere to go.
She said: “We were devastated. Our finances are very tight, we thought this was very unfair. The council are looking at every penny they spend.
“They’ve had to make cutbacks and we respect that, but this is a group that is very vulnerable. They’re socially isolated. They need local services.
“If we don’t get a peppercorn rent we will have to fold. What is sad is that we have put our money into this organisation – we created the sensory room, there isn’t another like it in the borough.”
133 per cent rent increase
Greenwich Council says it cannot afford to subsidise the rent, meaning the charity – which is struggling to break even – faces a 133 per cent increase.
Parents say that without workers such as Debbie Freeman, who runs music therapy sessions at the Toy Library, their kids would be still struggling to speak.
“It’s quite shocking that they are targeting the most vulnerable – these children have nowhere else to go. They can come here and just be themselves”, Freeman said.
Mums chat as their kids play. They say they can relax too as they know no one is judging the way their children, who have learning disabilities, play.
Fatima’s daughter, four-year-old Hajra, uses a walker. She manages a quick “hi” as she makes her way through reception to the play centre, where she clearly wants to be.
“She’s been coming here since she was eight months old,” Fatima said. “She loves coming here. This is a meeting point for parents, all the information is here, you meet mums and you get advice.
“If it closes, I don’t know where we will go. There are other places but they’re not for special children, and she gets really scared. She likes here because the children are like her. She’s happy.”
Rio, two, has been coming to the library for about seven months. He has autism and his mum, Maria, said he relies on the sessions by volunteers.
The first words when he wakes up on the days he knows he is going to the library are “Debbie Debbie Debbie”.
The mum-of-three said: “He is so comfortable here. He has had music therapy here that we can’t get anywhere else, it has had a huge impact on his life. This is his outlet, he depends on it.
“He wouldn’t have anything if this shut. No play group, no fun, no let out. I’d be angry. Sad and angry. It’s penalising the vulnerable.”
‘Nothing else like this in the area’
Four-year-old Jamie Martins has been coming for two years. His mum, Claire, called the centre a home away from home.
“There is nothing else like this in the local area, it’s just ridiculous for it to close. It would have a major dent in his day to day life,” she said.
Parents say the council should be prioritising its cash to spend on services for vulnerable people, not taking it away.
Within a few days of an online campaign to save the charity, more than a thousand people have put their name to a petition.
In a statement, Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe said that it was agreed the council would subsidise rent until March, when it would then increase to a market rent.
He said: “This is because the charity was commissioned to provide short breaks to children with disabilities on behalf of the Council until that date.
“Earlier this year we re-commissioned our short breaks programme to an alternative provider.
“This decision, which was informed by feedback from children, parents and carers, and the new programme, provides at least 500 more short break places than the previous one.
“As we’re in our tenth year of government-imposed austerity we are having to make increasingly difficult decisions to cope with the massive reductions in funding, so are not in a position where we can continue to subsidise the rent on this building.”
At the time of writing, over 1,600 people had signed the petition to save the centre.
Tom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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