By Natasha Boddy, Canberra Times

Alarna Barratt with her son, Tyrone,13 at home in Chisholm. Photo: Melissa Adams

As a father of a child with autism, Ricky Stuart knows how valuable respite and support can be for families and carers of children with disabilities.

Passionate about the need for respite services, Mr Stuart has dreamt of building a new respite centre for children with disabilities in Canberra.

It has taken a lot of hard work, determination and fund-raising through his foundation, but Mr Stuart’s dream will come a step closer to reality on Wednesday as the ACT government announces it will partner with the Ricky Stuart Foundation to build a new children’s respite centre.

The government has committed $1.075 million to construct the purpose-built facility, which will offer out-of-home respite services for children aged 5-12.

It will cater for all children with a disability, including support for children with autism.

The six-bed centre, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2015, will cater for between 30 and 40 families a year, depending on need, and will complement existing respite services.

Disability Housing and Community Services Minister Joy Burch said the new centre was “great news” for ACT families and would “give carers the short-term break they need to recharge, while providing a positive experience for the child with disability”.

“Some families may choose to use it as a weekend away for their child, while others may like to use it on week nights. Our aim is to make sure it operates in the way families and children with disability want it to,” she said.

Mr Stuart’s foundation raised more than $500,000 for the project, but the Canberra Raiders coach said fund-raising efforts were far from over.

Mr Stuart knows the importance of support and access to respite services for families – because he and his have been through it too. His 16-year-old daughter, Emma, has autism and in 2011, he created his foundation to raise awareness of the condition.

He said the new facility would not have been possible without the support of the ACT government or the generosity of the Canberra community.

“We’ve been hell bent on building a respite centre suitable for all disabilities that’s comfortable for the children but more importantly that mum and dad feel comfortable when they’re walking away from their child, knowing that the child is in a safe, caring and comfortable environment,” he said.

He said respite was a much-needed resource for parents of children with disability.

Alarna Barratt, whose 13-year-old son Tyrone has cerebral palsy, said a new respite centre was fantastic news as there was already huge demand on Canberra’s existing respite services.

“There’s a lot of demand, especially during school holidays when parents still need to continue work and there are a lot of single parents like myself. Without the respite services, I definitely can’t do it on my own,” the Chisholm mother said.

Ms Barratt said respite offered parents support and a much-needed break, but had also helped her son to gain some independence and to be more outgoing.

The ACT government will identify and secure land and the Ricky Stuart Foundation, in partnership with the government, will undertake the design and construction of the facility. Marymead will operate the services.

Ricky Stuart is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.

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