The Duchess of Norfolk officially opened the new £700,000 café and visitor centre at Ferring Country Centre on Wednesday (29th September).

The Duchess, who is the centre’s patron, unveiled a commemorative plaque in the café and congratulated staff and volunteers on their hard work during difficult times in keeping the centre and services open. “It’s very impressive,” she said.

Ferring Country Centre which provides day services for adults with learning disabilities opened in 1986 with just 12 young people and a staff of six. They worked in the stables and horticultural area.

Today 120 people with learning disabilities visit the centre every week and are looked after by a full-time equivalent staff of 49. And there are working opportunities for them in a wide range of activities in the stables with an indoor riding school, the garden centre, a farm with a large variety of animals, and now a spacious café.

More than 80 people attended the official opening, including Mr Neil Hart, High Sheriff of West Sussex, Mr Lionel Harman, Mayor of Worthing, Sir Peter Bottomley, MP Worthing West and Mr Sujan Wickremaratchi, vice chairman of West Sussex County Council. Members of the two families who founded the centre also attended.

The latest project comprises the provision of a covered walkway through the horticultural area to a new visitor centre and shop. The café has an indoor children’s play area and two terraces, one overlooking the horticultural area and the other overlooking the outside children’s play area. It can seat more than 100 people and replaces a potting shed and green house which housed the original small café.

Hannah Tombs, chief executive officer, said: “The café has already made a huge difference turning the centre into a destination venue. During the summer it generated more income in one month than in the whole of a previous year. This income can be reinvested into the organisation for the benefit of those with learning disabilities.”

Welcoming guests to the official opening, Mr Bob Rogers, chairman of the centre’s trustees, said: “Our principal mission is to provide meaningful training and work experience for our day service adults so they can develop work and social skills in a safe, supervised and supportive environment. As a secondary objective our facilities are open to the public so they can enjoy what we offer and they can see and support our charitable activities.

“To do so we need the very best facilities to ensure the atmosphere here is stimulating and empowering for all who attend.”

He said that over the year improvements had included better riding therapy equipment, better classrooms, a wet room and sensory room, IT suite and small multi use pavilion. A farm and children’s play area had been created and the car parking improved.

He thanked West Sussex Country Council for their funding to support the day service customers but stressed that building projects and improvements at the centre were funded by the generosity of local people and businesses in the form of donations, legacies and fund raising.

Hannah Tombs took the opportunity to share with guests the organisation’s Covid story and the impact of the pandemic on people with learning disabilities. She showed a video of interviews with three centre attendees in which they talked about the effect of the pandemic on their lives.

Mrs Tombs said: “As an organisation we have had to make decisions and changes to what we do that 18 months ago would have been totally unthinkable. We have had to respond to the needs of those we support throughout this time in an agile manner, adapting to an ever-changing situation.”

The Duchess of Norfolk who arrived with her young dog, took the opportunity to visit her two ponies, Mango and Pixie, which are kept at the centre.

The centre’s next project, a woodwork work shop, funded by the charity Wooden Spoon, will be officially opened on Friday 22nd October by England rugby player Joe Marler.

Report by: Janet Rogers

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