I wonder if I've ever shared the story of our first home here in Abingdon?
From a very early age, I knew that I was going to foster and adopt children with disabilities. All through my teens, all my studying was towards that end. I assumed that I would go to university, get a degree, meet my husband whilst doing so, get married, work for a few years, have birth children, and then foster.
And then I crashed and burned four months in to a four year teaching degree, and ended up working in nursing homes for a pittance. £1.17/hour. Be thankful for the minimum wage, which came in a couple of years later.
So my plan wasn't going so well, but I still knew I would be fostering and adopting. I just had no idea how I'd get there.
Fast forward a few years, and I'm working in a boarding school for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities. My first key pupil dies when I'm on induction. My second key pupil turns out to have been adopted by a single parent; suddenly I realise this is possible.
I approached our local authority, to be told "we only have teenage boys with challenging behaviour, and we wouldn't place them with a single woman."
I approach various adoption agencies, and am rejected repeatedly.
And so I concentrate on work, grab some qualifications, know this is still my future but consign it to the "one day maybe" pile.
Until one day several years later the phone rings, and it is a social worker, wanting to know if I am still interested. She has a baby who needs a home ASAP.
I don't have a home, but my parents say I can have a couple of their bedrooms, and we start moving full speed ahead, until suddenly there's another family, already approved, who can take this baby straight away.
Good for the baby, another closed door for me.
The SW wants to finish our assessment; I tell her to go away and come back when she finds me a house. An impossible task; fostering social workers have no housing connections.
I nurse my wounds.
And then, months later, another phone call. She has a house, am I still interested?
It turns out she had been visiting the adult SW team, when a phone call came through from a housing association. Does the team know anyone who needs a through floor lift, as they have a vacant property with one in, no disabled tenants, and so will be removing it the following weekend turning the adapted house back into normal housing stock?
And so I had a house. A beautiful Victorian terrace, with through floor lift and lots of upstairs space, and a little concrete yard to hang washing in, and a wonderful (and usefully, very deaf) neighbour.
We finished the assessment, went to panel, and my first respite placement moved in the following day. As I worked my notice, I commuted two hours each way, picking him up on my days off, then dropping him to school and driving cross country to be up near Cambridge in time for my late shift.
We furnished the house piecemeal; social workers from across the county had rugs, tables, even a sofa to pass on. Everyone seemed to have an old computer desk, although only one was actually needed.
I gave up work, and came back to my home town to do what I'd always known I would be doing. It was precarious, going from a live-in job with no outgoings, to having to find rent and bills, food for whoever was with me, and so on. God was very good; for several months until I had a full time placement, every time a big bill came through, ache whe would come in the same post. Bonus checks from various organisations privatising themselves, a late payment from work, over and over again, and always enough.
Let's skip ahead a few years.
The house was lovely. But it was a three storey building, and the lift only went to the first floor. By now I had Imogen, and her bedroom was on the top floor, next to my own. Fine carrying her as a baby, but not safe in the longer term.
And then an advert in a local property paper; a ground floor, three bedroom flat for sale just around the corner from my parents and church and school.
On the day we moved in, Imi had her first ever stay at Helen House. The next day, Goldie had a minor op. What should have been a swift recovery turned into three months bed bound, as her wound refused to heal.
And so we redecorated around her, painting whenever Imogen was elsewhere overnight, and fitting hoists and shower benches and other bits of kit around Goldie as she lay in bed. Fun times.
Our vendors had had interesting taste. Seven different tiles in the bathroom; bathroom tiles floor to ceiling in the kitchen, and kitchen lights wired to a motion sensor, making it necessary to stand up at regular intervals whilst eating, or else be plunged into darkness.
Still, it was our home, it was accessible, we were all on one level, and I loved it.
That's the background. Possibly the longest introduction ever.
We will fast forwards another few years. Picture, if you will, a toddler Amana learning to drive a power chair. The walls bear scars.
And as Imogen gets older, and sicker, painting at all is no longer an option, unless we move out for a week. Hastily decorated rooms are beating signs of damage. Wiring is beginning to show its age, and with every new adaptation, more holes, more trunking, more battering around the edges.
And more exhaustion. Imi may have more respite, but I need this time to sleep, to breathe, to recharge before taking back her care.
More supplies, more kit, more everything squeezing into what feels like an ever shrinking home. When incontinence supplies are delivered three months at a time, and when you have two, sometimes three children requiring them, where do you keep it all? Feed supplies, medications, syringes, ventilator circuits, catheters; a fortress of boxes to somehow shuffle into some kind of order.
And then Imi even sicker, and ultimately, Imi in Helen House for the very last time, and finally, Amana and I returning home on Christmas Eve, to a house both too full and too empty.
God is good.
And then, in the new year, a new beginning. With a lot of help from family, and from some truly amazing friends, love poured into this place, and together with a builder, recreated it.
A kitchen fully accessible to Amana, where she can get under the counters, reach the oven, and heat things safely on the hob.
These units pull out so she can reach the work surface.
A sitting room, fully redecorated for the first time since we moved in.
A hallway, with strengthened kick plates around the bottom of the walls, to guard against more power chair experiments.
And space to hang coats up, for the first time in fourteen years.
This wasn't ever going to be an easy year. But so many people have helped us in so many ways. Giving us this beautiful beautiful house is perhaps the most tangible, but we have been so surrounded by love and support, kindness in so many different ways.
And now we have the hope and courage to start living in it again.