THE hundreds of tiny screws laid out in neat rows across the table are glinting in the early morning sunlight. Each will eventually be sent out with some unknown item but for now it is a component that holds together a whole way of life for dozens of people.

The screws will be sorted and bagged by volunteer workers at Phoenix Enterprises, a charity that provides work, purpose and a fresh start for more than 90 people with learning disabilities and mental health problems.

The 19-year-old charity partly funds itself by winning contracts to bag up screws, sort instruction manuals, re-price packets, assemble lunch packs and a complete plethora of other simple tasks that companies don’t have the time or workforce to undertake.

The group’s service users don’t get paid but in return they receive work experience, confidence, motivation and help looking for jobs. For many of the more vulnerable users though there is little hope of ever working so to them Phoenix represents family, in some cases it is all the family they have.

“I want to give everyone an opportunity, even if it just means they come in and do an activity and then at the end of the day they go home happy and tell their family ‘I’ve made a new friend today’,” says chairman of trustees Emma Rees, who joined the charity eight years ago when she was looking for something to fill her time.

She would have no idea then just how much of it would be filled when she found a group with no staff and only a handful of users, no funding and tiny, inhospitable home at a unit in Cheney Manor.

“It would have been easy to walk away,” she recalls. “But I wanted to stay for the users because they deserved a chance, they have all got dreams, ambitions and goals and why shouldn’t they fulfil them? Why should they just be left on a scrapheap, rotating through a system or just left at home? That has always been the motivation for me.”

She ran the charity single-handed for three years, even putting in her own money to pay an admin worker’s salary, before gradually building the group up into a more viable proposition.

Former Swindon Town director Mike Bowden, no stranger to an organisation fighting against the odds, joined as a trustee and support worker five years ago and now, via brief stays in West Swindon, Stratton and Groundwell – and one or two flirtations with closure – the charity is established at the former George White motorcycle showroom on the Elgin industrial estate.

“It has been a tough challenge but it was the people that kept me here and I really wanted to keep it going for them,” says Mrs Rees. “Wiltshire Community Foundation stepped in in the very early days with some funding, which was brilliant. For the bulk of the time I have been here the community foundation has continued to fund us.”

Ask any funder about the charity’s purpose and they’ll tell you it is to get people into work by giving them this invaluable, supportive experience. But just as important is the welfare of those who won’t ever make it on to a payroll.

Mr Bowden said: “We have people here who will never be able to work in the true sense and the moment we have to turn our backs on them, that is when we will have failed.

“Every individual is different and you can have those who will never work at one end of the scale, at the other end is someone who may have had a lifetime of work but has had a little crisis in their life. They may only spend two or three months with us before they are ready to go back to work so the gap between the two extremes is enormous.

“The idea of having one set programme that covers those two extremes is absurd. Some just need confidence boosting and some will be here for life, but everyone is really welcome.”

The group’s six staff and 24 volunteers provide a constant safety net of help and assistance for its users, many of whom live alone in supported housing. The Phoenix kitchen has toast, cereal and hot drinks each morning and every Friday there is a hot meal.

There is a tuck shop and free groceries to ensure those with a chaotic grasp on budgeting have enough to eat. Weekly social events including burger and quiz nights, football and outings provide a social life and friendship as well as a daily work routine.

Staff accompany vulnerable users to medical appointments, job interviews, benefits sessions and work placements and are always on hand for emergencies. Just today Emma has been woken by a 5.30am phone call from a service user having a meltdown.

“You don’t expect to work nine to five when you join us,” she smiles.

“Everyone who works here is a volunteer, no one has to come here, yet they turn up day after day, rain or shine,” says Mr Bowden. “They don’t even want us to close down for Christmas and when we re-opened after lockdown they were queuing at the door.”

The charity’s trustees are passionate advocates of equal rights for people with disabilities and are a regular flea in the ear of authorities and organisations they feel lack sufficient empathy. Last October service user Roy Oxborrow died aged just 43 from a blood clot. His picture hangs on Phoenix’s kitchen wall alongside fond messages of remembrance.

Mrs Rees is concerned that Roy was unable to adequately communicate his condition to medics and has since devised a medical checklist with simple images for service users to show GPs and hospitals how they feel, what hurts and how severe the pain is. She is campaigning for GP surgeries and other clinicians to have a common language for vulnerable users to communicate their illnesses consistently.

“If this is happening in Swindon it is happening everywhere and we want to make a difference because we don’t want people to die or feel scared,” she says.

The group campaigned for its users to receive early vaccines and is calling for greater understanding for people with disabilities and mental illness who are entitled to benefits.

“We had a young lady on Universal Credit who has no IT skills and struggled to get into the system,” -says Mr Bowden. “She missed two meetings with her job coach and was sanctioned, which meant she had no benefit for three months.

“We appealed and got it backdated but she had no money for three months and in the meantime was at risk of all falling into all kinds of unpleasant ways of making money.”

Another user was so intimated at a fitness for work assessment interview he answered yes to every question and was then declared able to hold down a job despite having a severe brain injury. “We managed to have the decision reversed,” says Mrs Rees.

“All of these things are no one’s fault but it just needs someone in authority to have some empathy and make these changes, because at the moment people with disabilities are being singled out. We want to be an organisation that acts as a voice for this minority, we want to see positive change.”

The charity needs £12,000 a month to stay in operation and raises half through funding from the likes of Wiltshire Community Foundation, a charity partnership with Zurich and a £15,000 a year contract with Swindon Borough Council.

The rest comes from its commercial income and staff member Karen Hyde, who has been with the charity for four years, has used 30 years of experience in industrial packing and assembling to win a flurry of new contracts. “She has helped grow the commercial business massively and because of the space we have now she has managed to triple the amount of commercial business coming through the door each month,” says Mrs Rees.

“We get the work because we offer a very high standard of work,” says Mr Bowden. “We can be competitive because our overheads are lower and the more progressive of our customers know it is a good news story to be associated with an organisation like us.”

The trustees are always looking for new avenues of revenue and work experience. A coffee shop and an urban farm have been discussed. The group will also open its own supported living house for four residents next year if Swindon Borough Council agrees.

“We genuinely care about what happens to all of our service users, we know all of their names and their family situations,” says Mrs Rees. “We know what their strengths and weaknesses are, their details of their conditions and how they affect them and we know what triggers them to have a meltdown.

“Lots of them don’t have families they can rely on, or families at all and often Mike will take on the role of dad and I will take on the role of mum.”