Petite and demure, you could be forgiven for underestimating Anna Kennedy. But this Middlesex housewife and mother of two is a force to be reckoned with.
When her sons were diagnosed with autism and turned away by 26 schools, she refused to accept defeat and took matters into her own hands.
Stumbling upon a derelict school that had been empty for ten years, she decided to investigate. After climbing over a fence, she found exactly what she wanted: a place where children could be educated and cherished.
At huge financial risk, she mortgaged her house and used her life savings to acquire the building. Five months after seeing it for the first time, it was hers. But her battle to open a school for children with autism had only just begun.
‘I’ll never forget standing inside with the keys in my hand and staring through the giant holes in the roof where sunlight flooded in,’ she says.
‘Trees grew through the broken windows, buckets stood in the corridors collecting dripping water, plaster peeled off the walls in chunks and the toilets had been smashed by vandals.
‘I thought: “Oh my God, what have I done?” But there was no turning back. My sons had autism, neither had a school to go to and hundreds of other parents lived in fear and isolation like me. I had to do something.’
Today, Hillingdon Manor School is an Ofsted-praised centre for excellence. Pupils who had once been bullied and friendless laugh and play together in the playground.
Teenagers who had been excluded by mainstream school study with quiet confidence for their GCSEs. The building is bursting with ambition, excellence, energy – and love.
Married to Sean, a legal advocate, Anna was working as a company supervisor when she had their first child. Patrick was born 11 weeks early in January 1990 and, after a fight for survival, he was a sickly child.
‘I thought that was why he found it hard to socialise when he started nursery,’ she says.
‘He seemed to be bright and I was so proud of his progress. He loved learning words from dictionaries and could recite the alphabet forwards and backwards by the age of three.
‘He memorised 30 Thomas the Tank Engine books and loved to watch the same video clips over and over again.’
The couple’s second son, Angelo, was born in January 1993.
‘He was such a happy and contented baby, which was great because Patrick seemed to need so much of my attention,’ she says.
‘When he was 18 months old, we went on holiday to Jersey. Angelo was talking away and I remember him staring at me and smiling – and how happy I felt. I will never forget that eye contact we enjoyed.’
‘I don’t want to spark the MMR debate – I believe Angelo would still have been on the autistic spectrum if he’d not had the injection,’ she says.
‘But within weeks, he stopped smiling, stopped talking and his eye contact ceased.’
At the age of four, Angelo was diagnosed as autistic.
‘Those early days are a haze because I was exhausted. Angelo would sleep for only two or three hours a night, and every morning Patrick would scream and cry on the way to school.
‘I remember getting upset at Christmas because I waited for some spark from Angelo as I handed him a present. But he showed no excitement, no joy, no emotion.’
Months later, at an emergency meeting with school staff, Anna found out that Patrick had also been diagnosed with a form of autism. The educational psychologist had written a report saying he had Asperger’s syndrome,’ she says. ‘I thought: “What have I done to deserve two children with autism?”
‘When we got home, Sean just went to bed and pulled the covers over his head. I sat and wept. I rang my Mum, but couldn’t even speak.
‘For the next few weeks, I didn’t want to go out. Then, I thought: “I am their mother. No one else is going to help.” I looked at 26 schools and some didn’t want to take Patrick and others weren’t suitable.
The council paid for tutors to give the boys just five hours of lessons a week. But one lasted just a day. I found her crying on the floor, saying she’d never met an autistic child before and couldn’t cope.
‘I have never felt so isolated or alone. There were no local support groups, so Sean and I decided to start our own through the local newspaper.’ Incredibly, 275 families contacted Anna – parents of society’s ‘forgotten’ children.
‘The response overwhelmed me. So many of the children had been bullied at school or excluded. Their mothers were desperate. I thought: ‘‘If I can’t find a school for our children, I’ll start one of my own.’’ ’
Soon after, Anna heard about the abandoned school. ‘After I saw it, I rang the council and they told me it was about to be turned into 37 flats. So I lobbied MPs and councillors until the plans were overturned. Next, Sean and I drew up a business plan and went from bank to bank, trying to finance our plans.
‘The local council agreed to lease the school to us for 30 years, provided we funded the refurbishment – an estimated £627,000.
‘We had just £3,000 in the bank, but I agreed. I received the keys in 1999 on Angelo’s birthday.
‘I stood in the empty corridors, watching water dripping in through the ceiling, knowing we had remortgaged our home just to get that far. In truth, I was terrified.
But for the sake of my sons, I just had to carry on.’
Sean took voluntary redundancy to help finance the building work and Anna worked from 6pm to 10pm at night, leaving her days free to decorate the school.
‘I asked the local probation service if it could help, and it sent people on community service. I got office equipment and carpet tiles from firms who were relocating.
‘At home, we had to survive on virtually nothing. I bought 9p tins of beans and every night we ate beans on toast. At Christmas, I bought everyone old videos from charity shops.’
On September 4, 1999, Anna’s school opened with 19 pupils. ‘Ironically, I was told Patrick and Angelo had funding to go to the school only two weeks before it opened. So right until the last minute, I wasn’t sure my sons would be able to attend the school I’d built from nothing.
‘On the first day of term, I felt sick. But as I walked the boys into school, I saw other mothers with their children. They all looked as anxious as me.
‘I spent the day running the school office. That afternoon, I picked up the boys. Patrick turned to me and said: “Mummy, I have a friend.” I had to stop myself from bursting into tears. The next day, another mother rang me, sobbing down the phone. She said: ‘‘My son has never been able to say ‘I love you’, but he came home from school yesterday and said it for the first time.’’ ’
Word spread and by the following September there were 60 pupils. Now, it has 150 pupils, making it the country’s largest school for autistic children.
Anna found an empty office building and has turned that into a primary school, which opened in September, providing education for 41 children. She has also opened an adult education centre and a new primary school in Bromley, Kent.
Today, Patrick, 20, is a gardener at the school and Angelo, 17, is a pupil there.
Like the hundreds of other pupils who have been nurtured through the
school, the boys have found the friendships, confidence and success that once eluded them.
But perhaps Anna’s greatest lesson to us all is that no mother should ever give up.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1332830/A-truly-amazing-mother-When-Annas-autistic-sons-turned-away-26-schools-set-own.html#ixzz17cWd0LYR