We’ve all been on a journey these last eighteen months and one we wouldn’t choose to repeat given the proverbial clouds hanging heavy over all, weighing us down as we’ve looked for any shred of light and inspiration in the darkness. Through this time, I’ve noticed two types of people – the majority of us who hope to chance upon inspiration and the few who go out and create it. And that’s where Alex Winstanley comes in…
Alex started out as a PE teacher, and that’s what he did for five years – so far so good. But in his formative years, whilst training, he had become a support worker for a young man called Haydn, and also a volunteer with a local charity running Duke of Edinburgh sessions for disabled people and their families. Alex’s passion for the disability field grew so irrepressibly that when the SENCO role at his school looked too far off, he took the leap of faith most of us pull back from: he walked out on the security of his teaching position and started Happy Smiles Training CIC, with zero business experience, at the age of 27:
“I just knew that if I didn’t do it, I would absolutely regret it. I was sick of seeing the injustice of people stuck in a system not being valued – it made me really angry. I’d be out with Haydn who has cerebral palsy, and people would come up to us and pat him on the head like he understood nothing. But he understands everything – just communicates it in a different way.”
Happy Smiles began small with a video of them both simply chatting about Haydn’s life and were astonished when it got thousands of views. From that came a blog and more videos with other disabled people sharing their stories – giving voice on that platform – trying to normalise for people unfamiliar with a disability:
“Once the videos took off – in terms of raising awareness – Haydn had a trial session to speak in my old school. We did some generic sessions with different year groups and the response was massive. I had parents ringing in: one parent said their daughter returned home saying it had really impacted her and she wanted to learn more about disabilities and how to support disabled people. So, the early sessions were just Haydn talking about his life – everything he does in a week – and to show people his diary which is rammed full of allsorts. And I’d say to them I bet a lot of you go home and sit on your X Box…Haydn is doing way more than any of you. And that hit home.”
And this is the power of Happy Smiles: its lived experience delivery. Alex was fed up of seeing Haydn going to the same Day Service, day after day, paying lots of money to not really do anything, just sit in a room and chat with people. The inspirational concept was to do that for free and actually make a positive impact out in the community instead. And if that could work for Haydn, it could work for many others, too: giving people a meaningful role AND making a difference:
“So, in the two years, we have positively impacted over 4000 people with all the training we’ve provided. We’ve seen changes within an hour, or a morning, or a day, and also a difference in the people who deliver the training: one parent said to me last week that their daughter, Chloe, never used to speak and yet she recently gave training to 60 people at the National Education Union. It means a lot when people feedback like that because I realise that if I went back to teaching, not only wouldn’t there be this impactfulness, but what would our members do? They’d go back to being fitted around a role rather than the role be fitted for them.”
And if you think it must be hard enough challenging society on a daily basis – convincing people that as a training provider your service is really valuable not only to them but also the people delivering it – Alex decided to use the break of the pandemic not to take a breath, but to become a published author of a book about dementia that won a Dementia Hero award from The Alzheimers Society! Similar short books have since been written on Tourette’s, Cerebral Palsy, Depression and Cancer – all being used as part of an intergenerational reading project between schools and care home residents.
Still under 30, there’s a lot of future ahead for Alex and Happy Smiles, so what’s the vision?
“My goal for next year is to become the go-to training provider around equality, inclusion and diversity in Wigan at the very least, if not Greater Manchester. But as work continues to grow, I’ll be able to take more of a step back to the point where the volunteers are employed and they’re running everything and I’m just there to lean on. In my book, you can have a million qualifications but no one knows your life. Using that life – its reality – to positively impact people is what’s empowering. I’m just so proud we exist.”
Well, there we are – I chanced upon Alex Winstanley and met with more creative inspiration in an hour or two than in some people’s lifetime.