IT started with a letter published in the Daily Echo 62 years ago.

Although she couldn’t have imagined it, Phyllis Edwards was starting a charity that would help thousands of people with disabilities.

The founder of Diverse Abilities recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

The charity used the occasion to celebrate how far the charity had come thanks to her persistence and unwavering belief that there must be a better way to support those with disabilities.

Phyllis’s second child, Marilyn, was born in 1948 with cerebral palsy.

It took two years for her disability to be diagnosed. When it was, doctors told Phyllis she would have to send Marilyn away.

Phyllis later recalled a paediatrician asking “And what do you expect me to do?”

She added: “He said no one can do anything for her; she will never grow up as a normal person. It was a dreadful shock. I came away, as you can imagine, in tears.”

Without any support available, Phyllis and husband John made the hard decision to have Marilyn admitted to Coldeast Mental Hospital near Southampton, classified as “simple minded”.

Phyllis “poured out my heart” in a letter to the National Spastics Society, which replied to suggest she start a local group.

Phyllis sent two letters to the Bournemouth Daily Echo in 1955, the second of which received nine responses.

Within two months, a group was formed with the intention of providing better opportunities for children with physical and learning disabilities. This was the start of Diverse Abilities, then known as the Bournemouth, Poole & District Spastics Society.

Within one year, the group’s first centre opened in Bournemouth and in 1957 the Society was registered as a charity. From then on, it grew and developed to offer more services to more people.

Within one year, the group’s first centre opened in Stafford Road, Bournemouth, and in 1957 the Society was registered as a charity. From then on, it grew and developed to offer more services to more people.

It ran the Langside Centre in Alder Road, which was opened in 1967 and later became Langside School.

Edward House, for young people reaching adulthood, was opened in 1974. Respite care was later provided in Kinsbourne Avenue, Ensbury Park, and later at Smithers, in Manor Avenue, Poole. The former St Barnabas church nearby was turned into an adult day centre.

Today, Diverse Abilities supports over 2,000 local people a year through its wide range of services. Over nearly 63 years, families have been kept together as thousands of children and adults with disabilities have been cared for and given the support and services they need to fulfil their potential.

Much of the provision provided to local people with disabilities is down to the support from the local community raising vital funds.

Andrea Lennox-Gordon, mum to Victoria, who is supported by Diverse Abilities, said: “If it was not for Phyllis, who knows what life would have been like for hundreds of children and adults with disabilities in Dorset. A life in an institution or hospital away from the family, not knowing how long they will they live and what sort of life they will have.

“I can’t thank Phyllis enough for not giving up all those years ago. Because of her I don’t need to worry about my daughter, as the charity is not only here for her but us all as a family.”

Phyllis celebrated her 100th birthday recently with friends and family at Two Cedars in Broadstone, the residential home where she has lived for five years.

She was congratulated by Poole mayor Cllr Lindsay Wilson and the Queen’s representative in Dorset, lord lieutenant Angus Campbell.

Mr Campbell presented her with a card and message from the Queen.

Jenny Pearce, communications manager at Diverse Abilities, said: “Phyllis had a wonderful day celebrating her birthday alongside friends and family. Two Cedars hosted a fantastic afternoon, which Phyllis very much enjoyed. When opening the card from the Queen, she was very overwhelmed and felt privileged to have received it.”

To honour Phylllis’s birthday and continue her legacy, Diverse Abilities has been asking local people and businesses to give £100 to celebrate her £100 years.

Ashley Weedon, fundraising manager at Diverse Abilities, said: “Just imagine having a child and being told, there is no other option but to send them away. Like many children and adults with disabilities, and their families, we are so thankful to Phyllis and her determination to succeed.

“If, like Phyllis, you believe that everyone, regardless of the cards dealt to them, deserves to be given the chance to lead happy, fulfilled lives, please donate what you can - all donations would be very gratefully received and will continue the vital work Diverse Abilities does to support those with disabilities locally.”

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