The weather started out drizzly, but the sun shone at the right moment for the unveiling. Cathy Benson spoke about the wonderful work her mother – alongside her father, Keith Benson – did for our charity from its very first days, and also remembered her brother Neil who was one of the earliest residents supported by the organisation.
Our CEO, Sue Stubbs, thanked the staff involved in making the tribute possible, then went on to say that Autism Together treasures its history and will never forget the efforts of the founding parents.
Sue recognised Helen Benson’s incredible commitment to the charity for so many decades, to her vital fundraising and her desire to improve life for autistic people, which was awe-inspiring and made such a positive difference to so many individuals.
Read on to enjoy the full tribute paid by Cathy Benson to her mother Helen…
“For those who didn’t know my parents, they were both founder members of the Wirral Society for Autistic Children as it was then known. My father, Keith Benson, was the Chair, and my mother, Helen was the Honorary Secretary, for nearly 40 years. You may be wondering why they were so involved with autism for so long.
“My brother Neil, who sadly passed away in 2014, was diagnosed with autism in 1959, when he was 3. My parents realised they should see a specialist because, although he could speak, he didn’t use his speech to communicate in the same way as other children. There was very little awareness of autism back then, and the consultant recommended they just put him in a home and forget about him – this was not an uncommon attitude back then. Of course they did not, and Mum set about teaching him herself. The next time the consultant saw Neil, he was amazed at the progress he had made and congratulated Mum – and admitted he’d been wrong.
“If we fast forward to Neil’s teenage years, my parents were becoming really worried about the future; then they heard about John Brady and his very courageous act of civil disobedience, which you probably already know about, and in 1968, the WSAC was born, with a group of parents including mine, the Bradys and Joe and Ann Kelly. And my Mum got down to full-time voluntary charity work.
“Even before this, she had always had the vision of a sheltered community for autistic adults, where they would live together and be cared for – but not just cared for – she wanted Neil and others like him to live lives that were fulfilling and interesting and creative. She wanted them to always be engaged in meaningful activities, making things, making music, growing things, looking after animals, and so on. She knew a few such communities for people with learning difficulties already existed elsewhere in the country, and she began to single-mindedly work towards this goal.
“Her biggest talents were for fund-raising and campaigning. Her fund-raising started with small coffee mornings in our living room, with a few friends and neighbours eating cake, but she quickly moved on to more ambitious projects. She learned that trust funds could be an excellent source of funding; she became an expert in applying to trusts and receiving large donations. She didn’t stop fund-raising when Raby Hall opened in 1977, which might have seemed like the culmination of her efforts and the fulfilment of her dreams, but she kept finding new projects to work towards – Helen House, the narrow boat, the community houses, the farm……. and so on. During her years as Honorary Secretary she raised over 3 million pounds altogether.
“In some ways, she was quite shy and certainly very modest. My father was always more in the limelight, while Mum worked more behind the scenes, organising and cajoling – she was terrified of public speaking, but extremely persuasive and charming when dealing with people one-to-one. For example, she persuaded the head of Merseyside Improved Housing to finance the building of Helen House – to the tune of about £150,000. This was the first time a housing association had been involved in this kind of project.
“She was a brilliant writer – her letters, whether to trust funds, politicians, journalists, or celebrities who she hoped to bring on board, were very effective, very direct, often moving, often quirky, often witty, and occasionally written on the backs of cereal packets if she had run out of paper! My father always said that of the two of them, it was Mum who was the real ideas person. When she passed away, I received a card from a well-known local politician saying simply “She was one of the world’s innovators”.
“Autism really was her life’s work, and she would work 13 or 14 hour days when she was engrossed in a particular fund-raising effort or campaign, and she was constantly reading and researching about autism, right up until the end of her life.
“However, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that she was worthy and hardworking but dull. She was very worthy and hardworking, but never dull. She loved poetry and art and dancing and wine and cats, and she had quite a dark sense of humour, she loved travelling and spoke French like a native speaker. She always used to say that if it hadn’t been for Neil, she would have been quite a selfish, hedonistic person, but I never actually believed that!
“Finally, I just want to say that I am delighted to be here to unveil this tribute to my Mum’s contribution to autism, I know she would love this tree and this bench, but I also know she wouldn’t forgive me if I stood up here and talked about her without thanking all the staff who looked after my brother Neil with such love and dedication and energy. She always appreciated so much what they did for him. Thank you all for being here.”