Bridge Association support centre set to close its doors
An award-winning support centre for people with learning disabilities will close this week after claims health bosses cut its funding without warning or explanation.
The Bridge Association in Antrim will shut its doors tomorrow after 25 years — leaving 21 adults with learning disabilities without an alternative service after the centre went bust.
The facility, which helps some of the most vulnerable people in society to live independently, ran out of money after the under fire Northern Health & Social Care Trust slashed funding by £84,000 a year.
The people who rely on the centre — where they learn skills such as reading, writing, and how to look after their personal hygiene — have said they are devastated at the closure.
David McKenna (47), who has no surviving family in Northern Ireland and lives alone in Antrim, said he has no future without Bridge Association.
He said: “I don’t know what I am going to do. Bridge is all I live for.”
The people who use the facilities at Bridge Association and their families are planning to protest outside Antrim Civic Centre this evening as the chief executive of the trust, Sean Donaghy, is due to attend a meeting of Antrim Borough Council.
The financial crisis arose earlier this year during work to draw up a new contract between the trust and Bridge Association.
In February, Oscar Donnelly — director of mental health at the trust, wrote to Bridge Association saying they would be unable to complete the new contract on time.
As a result, he said he would extend the current contract, in which the trust paid Bridge Association £19,416 a month, for the next three months covering them until June.
“As I know you would reasonably require a level of surety for your own financial security, I would intend extending the current arrangement for a further quarter which would give us adequate time to conclude these matters,” he said.
However, in April the trust reduced its monthly payment to Bridge Association to £12,250.
Jacqueline Barnes, manager of the centre, said: “The trust has put us in an impossible position. The first we knew we were getting less money was when it went into our bank. Now we’re in the red and we have to close.
“The trust says the situation can be resolved if we sign a new contract but it is only a draft and it says they can amend it once it is signed.
“The paperwork we have been provided with has different figures on it and different start dates so we don’t really know what we are being asked to sign up to, let alone the fact it is only a draft version.
“We are asking anyone who cares about what is happening to the health service in the Northern Trust to come along at 5pm to show Mr Donaghy how unhappy they are.”
DUP MLA Trevor Clarke said the trust is failing the people it is supposed to help and has vowed to bring the matter up with the Health Minister Edwin Poots.
“No-one in their right mind would sign a draft contract without the details clearly agreed. It is absolutely ridiculous to suggest Bridge should sign the contract particularly after the Trust cut funding earlier this year,” he added.
A trust spokeswoman said its primary concern was to ensure the needs of those who attend Bridge and it is working to find alternative service options.
She said the new funding offer is “not materially different from that provided last year”.
She added: “There is absolutely no financial reason for this service to close and the trust continues to urge Bridge to enter into an agreement to secure the future of the service for all those attending.”
‘We are losing our lifeline... the situation is destroying me’
With the clock ticking and only 24 hours before Bridge Association is forced to shut its doors, some of the parents and carers of people who use the centre sobbed as they described the vital support it offers to the Belfast Telegraph.
Margaret Rose McCrea is the mother of Matthew (36), who has been going to Bridge Association for 16 years. She says:
“This is devastating for me. Matthew is a very healthy young man but if he loses his place here it will have a devastating impact on his health.
“He has been getting me up at 3am and 4am asking me what is going to happen to him if the centre closes.
“There are alternative facilities in the area but they aren’t as good as Bridge, and they don’t provide anywhere near as many activities or facilities.
“The centre is also a lifeline for me. Matthew comes here five days a week. He won’t even take a day off when he is ill because he loves it so much.
“This is where all his friends are, it is his whole life.”
Kathleen McCollum is the carer of David McKenna (47), who has been going to Bridge Association for 12 years. She says:
“David doesn’t have any family to look after him and he lives alone, so Bridge is a lifeline for him.
“He comes here and they make sure that he looks after himself.
“He doesn’t really know about personal hygiene but they have a shower and a washing machine and they make sure he keeps himself clean and does his laundry.
“He was at another centre and they told him not to come back because he smelt bad.
“At Bridge, they help him look after himself.
“Before he had Bridge he would have gone down the town and brought drinkers back to his house, because he was so lonely and he wanted the company.
“They were just taking advantage of him and causing problems, but now he has Bridge and all his friends are here.
“Bridge goes over and beyond where David is concerned and I don’t know what we’re going to do when it closes.
“This situation is really destroying me.
“David is ringing me in the middle of the night because he is so worried.”
Eilis McKillop is the mother of Michael (41), who has been going to Bridge Association for three years. She says:
“This centre is so important to me and my health has suffered very badly because of all the worry about what is going to happen.
“I collapsed a few weeks ago and they thought it was a heart attack, but it was the stress of what is happening.
“I am a widow and I am finding it very stressful as I have no-one to talk to about my concerns.
“Michael has Down’s syndrome and his speech is very limited, but they understand him at Bridge.
“I am not getting any younger and I am really worried about the future and what is going to happen to Michael.
“I don’t have a lot of faith that the trust will look after him properly.
“There is a suggestion that he may have to go to another centre in Antrim once Bridge closes, but all they have is a television, a couple of settees and one toilet between everyone.
“All they can do there is sit and watch television — whereas at Bridge they get so much stimulation and there are so many things for them to do.”