Doreen Goodall is the General Manager of CanalAbility, a charity based in Harlow, dedicated to providing facilities for people with disabilities and special needs to enjoy boating on the river with specially adapted canal boats.
A lot of people don’t even know about the river which winds its way secretively along the northern fringe of Harlow.
I must admit, even I wasn’t aware of the River Stort until I became involved with CanalAbility. Working in London, I jumped on the train at Harlow Mill each day and then I put my head down until I arrived at Liverpool Street. But it’s amazing what you can see when you do get the chance to look up and explore the edges of our town, and now the river is at the heart of what I do at CanalAbility.
CanalAbility, which is located close to Harlow Town station, is a charity which provides facilities for people with disabilities and mobility impairments to enjoy canal boat holidays and day trips.
The work we do supports a huge range of people – from people affected by stroke who feel purpose again by being able to steer the boat, to offering children in palliative care a trip with their family. Our work makes a huge difference.
CanalAbility was born when Essex County Council gave the founder, Derek Fenny, a narrowboat for an outdoor classroom, as part the outdoors centre. One day he saw a person in a wheelchair trying to get on the boat and thought there had to be a way for a person with a disability to access the boat as easily as the other children.
As a result of that, the Canal Boat Project, now CanalAbility, was born and we still have the first boat we bought back in 1999 (after 10 years of fundraising) – a broad beam boat, ‘Stort Challenger’ which is fully accessible for wheelchair users, and have since added 2 more fully-accessible boats.
The boats can be used for day trips, weekend and short-breaks, or week long rentals which can see families travel as far as London Zoo and back, along the canal network.
The boats are used not just by families, but also by disability support groups, schools, youth groups, and community groups such as the Community Builder project at Rainbow Services.
We also have relationships with other charities such as the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, who work with young people affected by cancer. They use our services for people they support who are not yet confident enough to sail, but still benefit from getting out on the water in one of our canal boats.
Learning to operate the boats is a great skill to learn. CanalAbility have around 70 volunteers who have all taken a nationally recognised Community Crew Course. The course takes 20 hours and allows our volunteers to become crew members on trips.
Of course it’s not just the skills that attract people. Research by Simetrica entitled ‘Assessing the wellbeing impacts of waterways usage in England and Wales’ shows that simply spending time by the waterways can make you happier and improve your well-being.
We are now looking to build on the relationships we have built within the community and charity sector, and can offer businesses the chance to strengthen their social responsibility.
Whilst we have a team of close to 100 volunteers, we are looking for volunteers with marketing and business skills to help promote our work more widely and manage the running of the charity, as well as a new Chair.
If you are currently someone with your head down, looking to explore the benefits of being on water, or a business looking to implement a corporate social responsibility strategy, why not take a trip down to the Stort. You never know where you’ll end up.
To learn more about CanalAbility, visit their website