The most out of life...

IT was one of the most touching weddings Jean Hill has ever been to - and she doesn't mind admitting she almost shed a few tears. The bride and groom had met at Sheffield Mencap and Gateway, a support charity for people with severe learning disabilities.

They weren't carers or volunteers.

They were the very people the group is set up to help - he had Down's Syndrome and she suffered profound learning and speaking difficulties.

But when the couple, who the charity has asked not to be identified, met in 2001, everyone noticed the instant connection

"They were on the same Progression Towards Independence course which we run," says Jean, a volunteer at the charity for the last 16 years. "They were both in their 30s and they just hit it off, became good friends, started romancing each other, and then eventually I think he proposed. They had a white wedding in Wadsley with lots of guests, and it was lovely to see these two people enjoying life."

It is a heart-warming story, for sure.

And this week - as the charity kicked off a year-long celebration to mark its 60th anniversary by releasing 484 coloured balloons - it was just one of many recounted by volunteers and members.

"What we're here to do is help people get the very most out of life," says Janet Sullivan, chief executive since 2006.

"Give people more independence, help them find friends or get a job. Our members have the same hopes as everyone else - but they face greater barriers, and that's where we try and help."

Set up in 1951 to meet a shortage of such support in the city, the charity, based in Park Grange Road, Norfolk Park, has supported quite literally thousands of families ever since. Currently, 55 staff and 150 volunteers help more than 700 families.

One such family is Norma Morgan, 66, and her adopted daughter Bethan, 22, who suffers with Down's Syndrome.

"What they do is invaluable," says Norma, of Hunter's Bar. "We've gone there since Bethan was a baby. She's quite shy but being with other people who have similar disabilities really brings her out her shell. She's now very independent and will even travel to the centre on her own. And it's nice for me to be able to have a cup of tea with families living with the same thing."

Bethan adds that she particularly likes the writing and reading classes on offer.

And those bright balloons?

Each one has been labelled asking whoever find its to send it back to the charity with a note saying where it was found. The sponsor of the furthest gets a free cruise to France.

"It's a way of raising money but also awareness," says Janet. "We're 60 years old but we still need all the support we can get so we can offer all the support our members need."

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