Local Health visitor, Ann Smallwood, recognised the need back in 1982 for a pre-school service that could offer advice and support to families who had a child with a special need or disability aged between birth and five years old. She was passionate that pre-school children with a special need or disability should have the opportunity to play, learn and develop in a safe and stimulating environment, and not miss out on these early experiences that other children without additional challenges were widely receiving. Not only that, but she also understood the need that all children of this young age should play alongside each other ensuring the opportunity to be role models for each other, in terms of language, social interaction and other developmental milestones.
Ann’s awareness of the need for all children to have the same opportunities was an unfamiliar concept at that time and not something statutory bodies began to offer until the late 1980’s. Her drive and enthusiasm as well as her determination and belief in full inclusion for these young children, led to the formation of the Opportunity Centre, which started in 1982 with five children. It began life in the old Broadwell primary school, which it soon outgrew and subsequently moved to a terrapin building on the site of St. John’s primary school in Coleford.
Numbers grew even more and Ann, along with a dedicated group of volunteers and fundraisers, raised enough money for their own purpose-built building which was erected on the site of St. John’s primary school, where staff and children moved in 1990. Once again numbers and the need of services grew and with support from a National Lottery grant and local support the roof was raised to provide accommodation for even more services and to make room for additional children and families.
Today the Opportunity Centre is the only fully inclusive pre-school provision within the Forest and Dean and Gloucestershire. Approximately half of the children who attend have a special need/disability and half do not, ensuring full inclusion.
The family support and pre-school sessions the Centre now provides are recognised and respected by many professionals and other services throughout Gloucestershire and nationally.
The Centre remains a registered charity and although Ann sadly passed away early in 2018, her vision of full inclusion for pre-school children and the support families need during the early years of a diagnosis of special needs, remains at the heart of everything we do at the Centre.