BAE Systems’ apprentices and graduates recently came together to help build a new outdoor sensory play area for Grace House – a charity that provides respite care for children with life-limiting disabilities.
Over 50 volunteers from BAE Systems’ early careers programme took part in the ‘Big Build’ project, which took place in Sunderland over two days this July. In this time the team built four wheelchair accessible shelters that engage visual, auditory and tactile senses. The new play area also has rope-and-log bridges, benches, plant boxes and play tunnels, built to help the children enjoy more interactive outdoor experiences.
“Our business had decided that we would like to give something back to the communities in which we work and live,” explains BAE Systems apprentice Frances Kier, who project managed the Big Build. “We focused our efforts on our Washington site and, with the help of Splash Projects, found Grace House, a children’s respite centre in the North East of England. We visited Grace House and quickly realised how much the charity means to the surrounding area.
“The funds for building Grace House were raised by the local community, which had identified the need for a children’s respite centre and worked tirelessly to raise enough money to build such a fantastic facility. Victoria Brown, CEO of Grace House, explained to us how they were missing an outdoor area for the children to play in and what a difference this opportunity would make to them. After speaking to Victoria and seeing Grace House, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss!”
As project manager, Frances began by discussing with Victoria and her staff the complex needs of the children there, and how ‘play’ meant something a little different to them than perhaps it did to able-bodied children.
“We were told how important sensory stimulation was to the children and so it formed the theme for the design of the play area. Working with Splash Projects I looked at different sensory elements we could incorporate in to the design, sharing drafts with Grace House to ensure what we had would work for the children.
“The result of this process was a sensory journey composed of different textured walkways and gradients that the children could feel through their wheelchairs. The pathway takes the children through four main shelters; a light tunnel, a visual sensory house, a sensory shelter and an audio shelter.
“Each of these shelters contains different sensory and interactive activities for the children, including a gear-based game designed by three of our STEM ambassadors.”
This game was made up of several acrylic gears of varying colours and sizes, laser cut and backed with magnets. One gear had an attached handle and another was the ‘goal’ gear. The idea was to place the gears onto a large metal sheet in an order that would move the ‘goal’ gear when the handle gear was turned.
Clearly, as well as giving back to the community, this project also gave the volunteers an opportunity to gain valuable experience in project management, leadership and teamwork. As project manager, Frances was given the opportunity to stretch herself and develop new skills that she could carry in to the rest of her career.
“I managed a team of six sub-project leaders, who each had a team of their own along with an assigned area of the build. As you can imagine, having over 50 people completing manual work in one area can present many challenges. Ensuring that people did not become too task-focused and that they considered the overall design was challenging, especially when put together with a two day time frame,” she notes.
“Volunteering presents an opportunity to do something different, meet people from all sorts of backgrounds and develop new skills whilst utilising existing ones. As well as all of this I would say to not underestimate how good it can feel to give something back to your community and those perhaps less fortunate than you.
“Undoubtedly the biggest highlight for me was the handover of the completed project to Grace House and the children who they help. Hearing the squeals of laughter and seeing the smiles on the children’s faces was an incredibly moving experience. Suddenly the months of planning and two days of hard graft seemed insignificant but definitely worthwhile,” she concludes.