The Burton Family

Royal Military Police Special Investigator Mark Burton, his wife Sharon and their son Jamie enjoyed an adventure holiday for families with special needs thanks to SSAFA and the Calvert Trust.

Newly married Mark and Sharon, along with son Jamie jumped at the chance to attend a SSAFA and Calvert Trust Short Break in the Lake District in 2021. The past few years had been turbulent for the Burton family, from Mark contracting Covid-19, transitioning to living in Catterick Garrison and educational barriers for Jamie, the SSAFA Short Break gave the Burton’s the opportunity to spend time as a family and take part in activities they never dreamed possible.

He was having fun and that is what it is all about: seeing the smile on children’s faces.

Jamie was diagnosed with autism and associated condition dyspraxia, making communication and coordination difficult. However, with help from the highly qualified staff at the Calvert Trust, Jamie pushed himself to try high ropes and zip wiring, something mum Sharon never thought he would do.

Mark: “I’m currently based in Catterick Garrison. I work for the Royal Military Police, it’s the Special Investigation Branch. It’s the equivalent to the Civil Police’s CID. So we deal with a lot of serious crime around the garrison and also we assist the civilian police that’s there. I’ve done 20 years’ service, so I’m on the downward slope now, looking forward to me pension...”

Sharon: “When we came across the chance to come on Calvert Trust, we jumped at it because obviously Jamie needs a lot of encouraging to do a lot of things and this week he’s just absolutely excelled. He’s done things I didn’t think he was capable of doing. And obviously that’s down to the staff and the opportunity that SSAFA enables us to be here and it’s absolutely brilliant.

“Jamie was diagnosed a while back with social communication issues and special needs because he was too young to be diagnosed with autism which a lot of families find it hard to get a diagnosis for their child. Without diagnosis sometimes the doors are shut. But SSAFA has been there, prior to that diagnosis because they can support, they can help you, they can guide you and point you in the right direction. Since then, he’s [been] diagnosed with autism, on the autistic spectrum disorder...he’s got dyspraxia, we’ve got a suspicion he might has dyscalculia as well.

“Its been quite hard, he’s been at occupational therapy, physiotherapy, but with moving, by the time we actually find a provision we would have been seven months without education, so that is...hard for him to slot back in.”

As a military family with a child with additional needs, the Burton’s have faced many barriers to get the support they need with Jamie’s education. And the toll of trying to manage by themselves can be severe, as Sharon experienced during the pandemic.

Sharon: “Because of Mark and I just meeting and the move to Catterick, I’d had problems getting Jamie into [an Education] provision because the mainstream was not for him...I had him at home for the year and I had a little bit of a breakdown and ended up in a catatonic state...I was just a mother at the end of her tether who was purely exhausted because I was fighting the education, I was fighting everything else to try and find him a school.

“Home schooling wasn’t working, they were supplying about an hour a week, which obviously he didn’t want to participate in which was creating more melt downs and things.”

Mark’s chain of command and particularly the Welfare team have been understanding and tried to accommodate the family’s needs with Mark’s military duties.

Mark: “My chain of command have been absolutely fantastic, I mean I’ve got the SRB welfare girl, she’s be absolutely fantastic she’s pointed us in the right direction, always on the end of the phone. My chain of command…they don’t understand Autism, they don’t know the difficulties, just as I didn’t however through me being Jamie’s dad and from what I’ve told my chain of command…, I think the support we’ve had from the SRB welfare, and my military side has been second to none, which is good and it’s all about the understanding.”

Attending the SSAFA short break has helped the Burton family to better understand each other and how other families with children with additional needs cope with their individual circumstances.

Mark: “The children that come here to SSAFA [Short Breaks], are all under one roof, they’re all the same person type thing, so the inclusion comes with that... They see people as similar, similar disabilities, similar standards to themselves, and you think, well I’m not being pushed out anymore, I’m not being isolated away from what you would have in a garrison with everyone else. I think it’s very, very good that SSAFA brings everyone together, and just offers that lifeline for people to enjoy the military community as well."

Sharon: “In our circumstances obviously it’s very, very beneficial...we’re just freshly married, he [Mark] hasn’t been in the environment long with Jamie so his understanding of disability and obviously different disabilities has been quite blinkered. So being here, hopefully it’s helped as a family because he can see other families, how they deal with things, obviously all the different disabilities, some visual, some non-visual and you know their capabilities and encouragement and banter off each other. Because one child might not want to do it, but another child you just give them that little push.”

It’s like having an extended family under one roof because it’s just joyful to watch them play, when they don’t get the chance at home because other children might not want to play with them and it’s great.

Sharon: “The break itself couldn’t come at a better time. [Laughter] Because obviously Mark’s had Covid, and you know with the transition and the moving and everything else it’s just been a blessing.”

Mark: “Not once have I seen these kids have any form of disability that actually stopped them from doing something... Seeing them on the high ropes, actually overcoming their fears...whilst being encouraged to do so by the staff, it has been absolutely incredible. I wouldn’t class people as having disabilities here, you know I’d class them as obviously turning round and pushing themselves further to actually make themselves, make themselves aware that they can do more than they actually think.”

The Burton family took comfort in the knowledge that all of the families on the Short Break were also from a military background, making it easy to connect and bond during the holiday.

Mark: “It’s providing a common ground, everyone in the military has something in common. So you can always relate to that person, doesn’t matter what cap badge you are and doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re from, everyone has that one thing in common.”

Sharon: “It’s networking within an establishment where you’re relaxed…obviously what might work for one family could possibly work for you. And what didn’t work for you could work for another family... it’s nice to communicate with other people in a similar situation... And everybody’s equal regardless of rank and race.”

Mark: “I think the Calvert Trust does that very, very well because it takes people out of their comfort zone and it makes them push themselves a little bit further and it gives them the self-belief, that they can do a lot more than they actually realise and I think that’s fantastic.

“I think all encompassing, it’s been brilliantly run...everything’s been understood, you’ve got highly qualified instructors out there that know what they’re doing and that shines through as well. They’re great with the kids as well. So for me, I think the whole experience, the location, what’s been put on, I think the facilities, as a oner it’s been absolutely brilliant...”

They were also particularly impressed with the SSAFA staff members who spent the entire week at the Calvert Trust with the families, taking part in the activities, and being on hand not just for advice on services and support available but for friendship and listening ear.

Sharon: “I think it’s absolutely brilliant that Fran and Jason [From SSAFA’s Social Care Operations Team] are actually on site with us participating in it because it’s a case of not just a name behind the piece of paper saying you’re going on a week’s this that and the other...they’re actually here, they’re participating...and they’re always available for a chat, and it’s not a chat about things in general it’s anything. It’s been really great having them here.”

For Sharon, who has seen Jamie struggle to interrogate socially and being excluded from normal activities for much of his childhood, the SSAFA Short Breaks was a welcome moment of inclusion, and inspiration- encouraging Jamie to take part and build his confidence.

...he’s done things that I wouldn’t have thought he would ever do.

Sharon:I could take you right the way back to Jamie in school, when the other kids were going to the camp for the weekends with’s a case of the same sort of thing, high ropes and things, he couldn’t go, he didn’t go because they knew his capabilities, they knew that he wouldn’t try. But to see him this week, he’s pushed himself, he’s done things that I wouldn’t have thought he would ever do. You know even on the swing, he didn’t go as high as everybody else but he got on there.

“That go ape type high ropes, first of all he was a little bit nervous, but after that he was whizzing around he was sitting in his harness and zip wiring between them and he was having fun and that’s what it’s all about: seeing the smile on children’s faces having fun. And he’s done brilliant.”

Mark: “He’s improving a hell of a lot, and that is through support. That is through you know places like this, where they can see other children and realise himself that ‘I’m not an outcast, I’m not one of these people who have to lock myself away in a room, I’m an individual I’m a person, I can still go out there and do things’…I think he’s come on leaps and bounds for the time I’ve seen Jamie and hopefully he can go on beyond that. You can live with Autism and things like that, it’s not a showstopper, it just means that he might need a little more support.

“Even the bikes; he wanted to go on a double one first of all then I said ‘have a go on this one’ and he loved it, whizzing around and it’s been an eye opener, hopefully he’s enjoyed it as much a I’ve enjoyed watching him enjoy it, and obviously progressing and doing things that he wouldn’t, even climbing the wall. He still managed to do it.

“I’m just glad that he’s attempted things, and not given up...he’s going to be proud of himself, you know for him to have overcome his fears and actually attempted it. I think he’s surprised himself and he’s got some self confidence in himself now, he’s the one that can leave here proud.”

Attending the short break has pushed the Burton family to try more adventurous activities together and has built up, not only Jamie’s self-confidence, but their confidence as a family to try new and different things.

Mark: “It sets the foundations I think, because it’s a case of once it’s been done, there’s a building block there and it’s like building a wall I suppose, once you’ve got the foundations in place then you start adding to that and start building it up. But yeah possibly something a bit more adventurous, maybe sailing, you know in the water, because we do like our camping as well...It’s key to build upon that and take a forward step and not go back, because he’s got the confidence there now... “

Sharon: “I think if the opportunity ever came up again with SSAFA, I wouldn’t hesitate, I’d jump at it. Because I know what to expect and I know what’s there, and I know how brilliant it all is.”

Sharon and Mark encourage other families with additional needs and disabilities to sign up to the SSAFA Short Breaks programme.

Sharon: “Do it, don’t hesitate, just do it. Thing is whatever your reservations are...they’re here to help, there’s always somebody there, it doesn’t matter what disability, how their mobility is, there’s appliances, there’s staff, there’s everything else. The bikes are adapted, and it’ll be fun. So don’t hesitate, don’t put barriers in like I did, just got for it, find out yourself and then you’ll be sitting here next time telling other families.”

Mark: “It’s for all ages and you know it’s fun, and that’s the main thing...It’s fun to be here. And as Sharon said just give it a go. Don’t cut it off before you’ve even had a go, give it a go and then make your mind up.”

Sharon: “Without SSAFA we wouldn’t be here today, because...we couldn’t afford it as a family for one. Two, it probably wouldn’t have been something we would have considered or looked at, but it’s been there and available, and we jumped at it, and they are very supportive. I have had involvement, before I met Mark, with SSAFA and the other charities and they’re just a lifeline. They’re fantastic in what they do and without them I don’t know how I would have managed with finding accommodation… They’re just so supportive in so many roles and some of the roles - I’ve only just been made aware of-  I never knew they could help with.”

Mark: “It’s needed, it’s serving a purpose...without people funding organisations like SSAFA, they wouldn’t be able to offer the facilities we’ve got here, the activities for the children, it’s a well worth fund to have. If that all gets closed off, then it’s the kids that suffer at the end of the day, and hopefully it doesn’t come to that and there’s a lot more funding that’s going to come in because the more people that get involved the bigger it becomes..."

The more families that get a chance, whether it’s this type of holiday or its support from SSAFA, without contributions, without charity, without sponsors and everything else it wouldn’t be. So, continue doing the good work, support SSAFA and give everyone a chance.