North East father founded Heel and Toe charity to provide free therapy

A business tutor’s determination to fight for his daughter’s development led to the North East’s only charity providing totally free specialist conductive education for children with cerebral palsy

Paul Bannister
Paul Bannister

A business tutor’s determination to fight for his daughter’s development led to the North East’s only charity providing totally free specialist conductive education for children with cerebral palsy – Heel and Toe.

Paul Bannister and his wife were determined not to let a pessimistic prediction regarding their daughter’s cerebral palsy when she was 18-months-old stop a search to improve her quality of life.

Hannah, who is now 16, endured complications at birth resulting in her brain being starved of oxygen and causing permanent damage. Hannah has four limb cerebral palsy but her legs are more affected than her arms.

Paul remained defiant and focused on how he could help his daughter’s development and build a better life for her. Instead of accepting the bleak future mapped out for Hannah, Paul researched treatments and therapies for cerebral palsy. This marked the beginnings of Heel & Toe, the only charity in the region to provide free conductive education therapy to children with Cerebral Palsy and other physical disabilities such as dyspraxia.

Paul, who has recently taken voluntary redundancy so he can run another business helping children and adults who need physio and occupational therapy, was a teacher in business studies over a period of more than 20 years at Kepier Academy in Houghton-le-Spring and Prudhoe High School.

Despite being in full-time employment and caring for a disabled child he still managed to found Heel & Toe in 2008 with long-standing friend Doug Long and quickly assumed the role of chief executive.

The demand for conductive therapy from North East families and the impressive growth of the charity would never have happened had Paul not seen a national news story discussing pioneering rehabilitative practitioner Andras Peto and the Peto Institute founded in Hungary that Paul became really inspired.

“A Hungarian Jew Andras Peto spent significant time with a cerebral palsy sufferer at very close quarters for a number of years during World War II whilst evading the Nazis. As a result he became convinced that certain types of intensive physiotherapy could reap both mental and physical reward.

“I visited Hungary and studied their treatments and I quickly became convinced that this was an exceptional rehabilitative process that really worked in terms of significantly improving the lives of children and adults with cerebral palsy.”

The living proof of this was the impact the therapy had on Paul’s own daughter who had been given such a bleak prognosis – no mobility, no speech and no real independence ever.

“It was truly devastating for my wife and I, we couldn’t believe that this was Hannah’s future. When you look at Hannah now you can see she has developed into an independent 16-year-old girl. She can walk with sticks, she has attended Durham Johnson School, a high achieving school and is studying for her GCSEs; I want other parents to be able to access similar therapy for their children to reap similar benefit.”

Paul’s partnership with Doug Long has endured and reaped considerable success relatively quickly.

Heel & Toe is a totally independently financed charitable organisation, it successfully raises £400,000 in donations every year helping about 80 children a week from across the region receive four hours of conductive therapy from an expanding team of specialist therapists from their three centres in Durham, Chester-Le-Street and Darlington.

Doug Long said: “We’ve worked well as a team; until recently Paul has been involved as chairman without portfolio and I’ve taken on the full-time role of chief executive with management of the charity’s expanding team of fund raisers, physiotherapists and other support staff.

“We complement each other, Paul takes a creative approach with the ideas falling out of him, whilst I can visualise if they will work, and if so, how to make them happen.”

Paul added: “We have achieved a lot but it’s always contingent on being able to raise enough money to pay for our obligations. Unlike many other worthy causes we do not receive any Government assistance so by definition in order to grow we need to be creative, and highly effective, in our approach to fundraising.”

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