Bringing Together Those Who Feel Most Apart
2nd November 2020
Beth James, Artistic Director, Square Pegs Arts
The lockdown period proved especially challenging for Beth James, who runs a theatre company for children, young people and adults with disabilities and autism.
While millions of people were struggling with establishing new routines the world over, for those with autism the changes proved exceptionally daunting.
Beth runs the arts organisation Square Pegs Arts, that caters for nearly 80 people every week, says: “I know it sounds dramatic, but what we do massively changes lives.
“When things change it’s really distressing for them, so being locked down was really difficult. Some of our young people really, really struggled. That’s why I was absolutely determined to do everything we could to support everyone and their families.”
The Kent-based theatre group is just one of the good causes supported by The National Lottery whose players raise £30m each week and has been proving a welcome lifeline for many of those with autism since Beth founded it 15 years ago.
A married mum-of-one, Beth built up the group after being approached with the idea by the mother of a 12-year-old boy with autism. Today, it includes drama groups, music projects, accessible film screenings and a professional theatre company for artists with learning disabilities.
Beth, who won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2017, says: “When we first went into lockdown it was pretty tough, but we knew it was going to be crucial that we supported the people that we work with. I felt like I had all these lives in my hands.
“First we worked to develop an easy to read guide to working online. Then we began making individual phone calls and sending care packages out in the post, before moving to run most of our projects on Zoom. In the end it has worked out really well.”
Having funding from The National Lottery also meant Beth was able to pay her team of freelance artists, giving them work when they’d lost a lot of their other employment.
It became a challenge to figure out how to do drama, singing and theatre, when nobody was in the same room together was pretty stressful at first, she says, but the results have been amazing. A particular highlight was when one of her students who had been really struggling throughout the period agreed to join in.
“Her mum said it was a really significant moment for her health. It’s those kinds of things that are so special,” Beth said.
The success of the response is down to the Square Pegs team and its volunteers, Beth adds. She hopes to keep growing the group and working with more young people, stating: “We want to change the world and change people’s perceptions of people with learning disabilities and autism.”