THE Oxford and District Sports and Recreation Association for the Disabled (Oxsrad) Centre was opened by Princess Diana in 1989 to give people with disabilities a place they could enjoy sport.
But it was seven years earlier that the group was founded by Julia Porter-Smith and her late husband Alan.
She said the couple found there were no sports facilities specifically for disabled people and they wanted to change that.
But they faced a number of challenges, not least being able to raise the money to build the centre in Court Place Farm, Marsh Lane, Oxford.
It took years of fundraising efforts and a £100,000 loan from Oxford City Council to achieve the amount they needed.
But the importance of the centre is as clear today as it was when it opened 25 years ago.
The Marston centre, which includes a sports hall, specialist gym equipment, sensory room, spa bath and treatment room, celebrated its anniversary at the weekend with an open day to encourage new members to join up.
The centre is available for individuals, clubs or groups to use, placing an emphasis on being able to supply sports and activities to anyone, regardless of their condition or health.
Paul Saxton, who is the centre manager, says a lot has changed in the past 25 years.
He said: “Originally it was a centre just for disabled people, but now we focus more on integrating disabled and able-bodied people: sports for all.
“Back at the beginning volunteers ran the centre with no paid staff – now that’s all changed.”
- Manager Paul Saxton
Mr Saxton has worked at Oxsrad for six years and admits it hasn’t been easy.
He said: “The last few years have been really tumultuous with cuts from the council – we have no money coming in like we used to.
“On top of that, users are having their funds cut too, so now some groups can’t afford transport to get here.”
In 2010 the centre nearly closed because of an unpaid photocopier bill, when they were ordered by the county courts to pay £48,851.
The charity faced a winding up order, but were saved thanks to donations and months of fundraising from loyal supporters.
Mr Saxton, 47, said: “We stuck it out; we raised a hell of a lot of money and spent it on keeping the centre going.”
The centre now makes money by renting its spaces to other groups, as well as membership fees and fundraising efforts.
Mrs Porter-Smith now leads the fundraising committee and said: “We’re still fundraising to keep it going. We used to do lots of car boot sales but people aren’t as interested in them any more.”
Mr Saxton, known universally as Sax, said: “This is a very special place. For some clients, Oxsrad is a part of their lives; if the centre finished it would destroy them.”
Despite having a number of regular users, Oxsrad needs more members to use their facilities.
Mr Saxton said: “You get people who just live around the corner who don’t know what we do.
“People need to understand that this is a centre for everybody – it’s not just for disabled. We have a fantastic gym system for everyone – we are quite diverse.”
Despite existing for 25 years and disability awareness improving since the 1980s, some say Oxsrad is still a rare concept.
Mr Saxton said: “We have members who travel 30 or 40 miles. There’s just nothing else for them to use where they live.”
Paul Tucker, who runs KidActive children’s activity sessions at the centre, said: “Once people step in here it is a level platform.
“I have a background in sports and I have never seen a place like this that caters for everyone.
“If the centre was not here we would be homeless.”
So what does the future hold for Oxsrad? Mr Saxton didn’t want to commit to mapping out the centre’s plans for the next 25 years, but said it has big aims for the next five.
He said: “In the next few years we are looking to extend the building – we especially want to get a therapy pool.
“The only other one in Oxfordshire is at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, and that has a waiting list for weeks and is miles away.”
After a pause, he added: “Really, we just want to keep doing what we already are doing, but better.”
'THEY'RE SUCH LOVELY PEOPLE'
ONE of Oxsrad’s regular members is Jane Slade, who is paraplegic after suffering a spinal injury caused by an aortic aneurysm on Christmas Day in 2009.
She is one of the 1,200 people who use Oxsrad’s facilities every week, and has been coming to the centre for the past three years.
She said: “I love it for two reasons: the disabled facilities and they are such lovely people down there.”
- Jane Slade
The 57-year-old said that it’s not just the people that are beneficial; she has been noticing various health benefits.
She said: “Since I’ve been using the equipment there I’ve noticed I’ve been getting a bit stronger in my legs.
“There’s a special bike where I don’t need my arms to propel myself. I couldn’t use it at the beginning, but I have improved.
“It encourages me to do it more and get better – I’d love to get out of my wheelchair and step about. And I like to think that I can.”
COUPLE'S MARATHON FUNDRAISING EFFORT
JULIE Porter-Smith founded Oxsrad with her late husband Alan in 1982, seven years before the centre opened.
She explained: “In 1981 it was International year of Disabled People, and we discovered that there was no sports facilities specifically for disabled people, or even accessible for disabled people, in Oxfordshire.
“So we set up Oxsrad in 1982, but we didn’t have anywhere of our own.”
The 78-year-old said: “We used other people’s venues doing various activities all over the city, but it didn’t really work because nowhere had the correct facilities.
“Eventually we just decided to build our own centre.”
- Julia Porter-Smith with her late husband's MBE
It took years of fundraising with supporters buying bricks, along with a £100,000 loan from the Oxford City Council, to raise the £275,000 needed to build the centre.
Such a mammoth effort from the charity deserved a royal opening, which was achieved when Diana, the Princess of Wales, opened the centre on February 8, 1989.
Mrs Porter-Smith, who now lives in Bicester, said: “Diana was lovely, she was very friendly and chatted to everybody.”
THE EARLY YEARS
1982: Julia and Alan Porter-Smith set up the group Oxsrad, although there is no building
1984: The group start fundraising for their own facilities
1989: Building work is complete and the centre is opened by Diana, Princess of Wales