LOVE can be hard to find, and it can be even more difficult when you have a learning disability.
But a dating service for young people with special needs is going from strength to strength, and has even led to wedding bells.
Mates ’n Dates was launched in October 2007 to provide an introduction service for the learning disabled, and now has 300 regular users across Oxfordshire.
Run by the Guideposts Trust, based in Witney, it is the only service of its kind in the county and recruits members, aged 18-80, through day centres, charities and word of mouth.
Co-ordinator Hannah Wolstenholme, 32, right, said: “Mates ’n Dates organises social events where people can meet and make new friends and perhaps arrange dates afterwards using one of the charity’s volunteer ‘chaperones’.
“Being able to access things like restaurants, the cinema and bowling is something most of us take for granted.
“But while our members want to be able to hang out with their new friends, watch a film, or enjoy a meal together, most can’t drive and therefore have to rely on a parent. And you would not usually take your parent on a date.
“So Mates ’n Dates can also help people to organise their own free time, get there safely – maybe get help with reading menus, or ordering and buying drinks – and then just enjoy their date knowing a chaperone is sitting close-by letting the date progress normally and completely safely.”
Mates ’n Dates runs speed dating at pubs around the county and also has a growing number of singles groups, including those in Oxford, Bicester and Wallingford.
Miss Wolstenholme said: “We have chaperoned 12 dates so far this year, and many have led to further dates and even relationships.
“There are seven couples we know of who have found love and many more who have made great friends.”
Anthony Holroyd, 31, from Banbury, has been a Mates ’n Dates member for three years.
He said: “Mates ’n Dates has helped me to meet so many people and have such a lot of fun. I met my girlfriend Debbie at a speed dating night and being able to go out together, with a chaperone close-by, is great. I am hoping we will have a long-lasting relationship.”
Last month Mates ’n Dates launched its latest venture – a new club night at Kudos Nightclub in Banbury.
Miss Wolstenholme said: “The management of Kudos have been very kind and it was a great night, with around 50 people attending, some with carers, and we are now making this a monthly event.
“The service is going from strength to strength enabling young people with special needs to have fun and maybe find love – and that’s what it’s all about.”
CASE STUDY David and Jo Shooter's love story
When Pam Aitchison was told her baby daughter Jo had a rare genetic condition which would leave her with severe learning disabilities, she knew it would always be harder for her to lead a ‘normal’ life.
But 23 years on, Pam, 54 and her husband Dave, 58, now have a happily-married daughter and a new son-in-law.
Mrs Aitchison, a legal cashier from Banbury said: “I’m sure if someone had said when Jo was born that she would one day be a keen footballer, that she would love nightclubbing and would be getting married and planning a life with the man she loves, I would have found that difficult to believe.
“But times have changed and thankfully here in Oxfordshire there are lots of organisations and clubs, like Mates ’n Dates which make life more normal – and really how it should be – for young people like Jo.”
Mates ’n Dates regulars Jo and David Shooter met at the inclusive disability section of Banbury United FC.
They tied the knot on Saturday at Whately Hall Hotel in Banbury.
Speaking before the big day, Jo said: “David is my partner and best friend.”
David, 33, agreed: “We are looking forward to being married so we can be together all the time.”
Mrs Aitchison said: “I could see there was an attraction between them straight away and after meeting in October 2011 they got engaged in May 2012.
“Because of Jo’s difficulties with speech we have had to help with some of the plans. But they both know what they want and have just needed guidance in achieving it.
“It’s wonderful to see how much they love each other and we already think of David as a son.”