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DIY SOS transformed centre for kids with special needs.. but we didn't do it ourselves; Presenter tells how TV team were helped by 200 local tradesmen.. and one woman.

Byline: Craig McQueen

WITH 1500 special needs children coming through its doors every week, The Yard in Edinburgh is always a hive of activity.

But this week, the sound of kids using the centre and adventure playground has been replaced by the noise of builders, carpenters, joiners and other tradesmen as the site gets a massive overhaul.

The transformation comes courtesy of the BBC's DIY SOS team, who have taken on the job of giving the centre a new lease of life as part of Children In Need.

But the real work is being done by about 200 local tradespeople who have put time, effort and money into the project.

DIY SOS presenter Nick Knowles said they were giving up their time when they could least afford it.

He added: "We told them: 'This is the BBC, so you won't get paid for it, you can't advertise, and the only reward you'll get is a bacon sandwich, your lunch and dinner, and the looks on the faces of the families when we finally show it off.'

"But come Friday, you'll never have seen as many big, hairy-a***d burly guys crying their eyes out. It'll be very emotional."

And Nick said the project was one of the biggest tasks the show had taken on.

He said: "There are 10,000 man hours going into this over 10 days, which is PS100,000 of labour costs for free.

"That's on top of the build which is costing PS500,000. After two days it did look as if we'd let off a tactical nuclear weapon in the yard but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

"But the place has always had a magical quality about it, even though it was run down and knackered.

"It was in danger of closing, so changing it was an expensive thing to do.

"We've taken 200 tons of waste out of here. It really is a vast project."

Added to that, designing a new centre and adventure playground for children with special needs is no easy task.

Nick said: "A lot of the children here are disturbed by change, so it was about updating it without losing its soul.

"I "We came to the realisation it's more like one giant family. The parents say that when they come through the gates, it's like coming home."

One of the parents who agrees with that is Edinburgh dad-of-three Dave Preston. The 47-year-old's eldest daughter Hannah, 17, has Down's syndrome, and has been using The Yard for years.

He said: "I work away from home in the oil and gas industry and my wife could come here when she wanted. It offered a safe environment for the kids.

"She could relax and speak to the other parents, as there are a lot of shared issues, so it was a safe place to be.

"The problem was that it was getting a bit run down and it needed a lot of work done to it - especially parts such as the kitchen and the art area."

Now Dave has given up 10 days of his holidays to work on the project, using his skills as a mechanical engineer to transform some of the equipment in the centre's adventure playground. He said: "I had holidays booked for October to coincide with the school holidays but I've brought it forward so I could do this.

"I've been stripping a swing for wheelchairs back to the bare metal, putting new bits of steel on it to strengthen it up, and putting new rigging on it. But I'm gobsmacked at what everyone else is doing. I work in an industry where everything is massive but what has been done here will blow people away.

"There are so many guys who have given their time away for nothing that it renews your faith in mankind."

As the only centre of its type in the east of Scotland, The Yard has been working with children with special needs and their families for 25 years.

With demand for their services growing, the need for new facilities had never been more acute.

According to Mark Millar, build manager for the DIY SOS team, that presented a huge challenge.

He said: "We needed tradespeople who could think out of the box and be a bit creative and artistic. Now we've got 110 people working on the site each day who are all artisans, which is fantastic.

"One of the main things we wanted to do with this building was make it cheaper to run. It cost PS1330 to run it every day, and a lot of that was being wasted on heating systems.

"So we've put a lot of things in place to reduce heat loss through the windows, the roof and ventilation.

"The more money that can be saved on energy, the more that can be spent on the children."

Team designer Gabrielle Blackman said: "Our aim is to look after the whole family, so this space isn't just about the child - it's about the parents and other siblings as well.

"You might have one child with complex needs and two siblings who don't have those needs, and it needs to be fun for everyone.

"We've spoken to parents who have said they can't use other play facilities because their children have behavioural issues, and one said this was the only place where her children don't get laughed at and where she could make friends with other parents."

It explains why volunteers such as Kelly Gibson were delighted to help transform the centre.

The 40-year-old from Edinburgh is the only tradeswoman working on the site, putting her painting skills to use in the playground.

She said: "It's been fantastic. There was a bit of mickey-taking on the first day when there was a lot of heavy lifting to be done but it's all good fun."

Now the team are working hard with the aim of finishing the transformation of the centre by Thursday, ahead of its grand unveiling on Friday.

That will allow the workers and volunteers who run the centre to see it for the first time since before the DIY SOS team moved in.

'You'll never have seen as many burly guys crying. It will be emotional'


HER OUTDOORS Kelly Gibson was the only tradeswoman on the site

HEAD WOMAN Designer Gabrielle Blackman takes charge

WIRED UP Electrician Billy Byrne keeps optimistic

GIVING IT THE WORKS Nick Knowles and Pudsey bear with the tradespeople who helped the project become reality
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 2, 2012
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