My name is Steve Burke, I am 37 and married to Jennifer, who is 36. We live in Tadworth in Surrey. I am an emergency response police sergeant and work in South West London. Jennifer was a teacher before having to give up work to care for our son, Joseph (Joe), who after problems at birth has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. We also have a seven-year-old daughter Niamh who attends a mainstream primary school.
Joe is four. He is unable to sit, roll over, walk, talk or eat for himself. As a family, everyday life can be a challenge. His disability means that activities are difficult to do at home and he easily gets bored and frustrated. Niamh is a vibrant and happy seven-year-old girl who loves dancing and singing as well as the usual other activities, swimming lessons, after school sports sessions and Rainbows.
The last member of our family is Jack. He is 10-year-old mixed breed dog and is perhaps the lynchpin as to how and why we remain active on a day-to-day basis!
We are all always out walking Jack together and this allows us to visit many different places and do many different things. As we live in a semi-rural area (very close to Epsom Downs and the Surrey Hills), we often walk in the countryside. This allows us to teach both children about the wildlife and nature that surrounds us. Simple old-fashioned activities such as picking blackberries at harvest time, inevitably lead us to making a mess in the kitchen making jam or fruit crumbles.
After the problems at birth with Joe, I started to take part in parkrun as a way to manage the array of emotions that I was feeling- anger, frustration, grief. I lost weight; I got faster and started taking running seriously.
In the early days as Joe got bigger and stronger, I started taking him to parkrun and I would push him around the course in the buggy in one hand and Jack on the lead with the other. It was an important time and allowed Jen to take a break from Joe's full-time care. As I reached my 100th parkrun, Jen started to become interested in coming along which meant that Niamh also came.
Before long, we were all doing parkrun as a family. When Joe reached four years old in March this year, we registered him with his own account. We wanted him be included in the results, even though he can neither walk nor run. Jen has now completed over 50 runs, I am close to my 200th whilst Niamh has ran 23 full parkruns and Joe has six!
Joe and I enjoy our Dad/son times together watching football too. We go watch our local non-league team, Sutton United FC, play. We stand on the terraces and Joe gets as excited as any other four-year-old football fan does.
The impact of being active together on us is that we get to spend quality time together. It allows us the opportunity to talk to one another and listen to any problems that we might all have. Often disabled children’s siblings are put under a lot of pressure without you realising just how much and as a result, can close themselves off. As we are active as a family, many of those concerns tend to come out as we go around the parkrun course. It’s chance to talk about them in a relaxed environment.
The other benefit as a family is that we have a "can do, will do" attitude. We encourage each other to be physically active and this rubs off on Niamh especially, who has a natural interest in the effects of exercise. She has a good knowledge of good food and bad food and understands that carbs give energy; protein builds and repairs muscle etc.
For Joe, the opportunity to be involved in parkrun is immeasurable. When so much of everyday living seems so inaccessible (soft play, playgrounds, swimming etc. for various reasons), it’s great to feel that we can all take part.
The reception that Joe got when he crossed the line after his first parkrun was amazing. I stopped the buggy 50 yards from the finish line and held Joe as he took the tiny steps needed to finish. Our thanks must go to the organisers at Banstead Woods Parkrun who encouraged us 100% to get Joe registered. Also, the fantastic support that they give to both Joe and, very often, a tired and reluctant Niamh!
For families with disabled children, my advice would be to just go out and do it. Life is hard enough without feeling like you are not welcome at things. For us as a family, Saturday mornings especially mean that we are up and about. We get the chance to talk, laugh and sometimes cry as a family, but more than that, we achieve things as a family and it adds a little bit of routine to our lives. The people you will meet just by regularly being active will open up a completely new circle of friends who you would never have met had you not tried.
More than anything in the world, I would love to have a chat with Joe. But if he could talk more to me, I hope he would say that even with all the barriers, Dad treats him just the same as any other little boy. And that he loves spending time with me!
Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there.