Is remembered by a generation of journalists for his inspirational teaching and passion for human rights. His name lives on through the Robin Centre where lives are transformed.

IT’S Tuesday afternoon and there’s excitement and laughter in the air as a group of adults gather round a table for a fun ‘vocabulary quiz’.

“Come on, you know this one,” says Vicky Hubery, gently pointing to a sheet of paper, containing a sequence of sentences with words missing.

Welcome to The Robin Centre, a special place where people with learning difficulties come to learn basic life skills: reading, writing, money-management, cooking, nutrition, road safety, making friends – anything that helps them to achieve greater independence.

Vicky is day services manager, and she works alongside Tracy Brown, who is known as a senior enabler. Together, they form a close partnership that’s transforming vulnerable lives in a Middlesbrough building.

It’s named The Robin Centre in memory of a man who will be fondly remembered by journalists from all over the world, including myself and my wife, Heather, who converged on Darlington as students to learn their craft.

In those days, budding journalists – British and international – studied in Ingleside, a grand old house, in Trinity Road, that was a detached part of Darlington College.

While course leader Ted Hill calmly imparted his wisdom, and the diminutive Joyce Hardaker ‘drill-drill-drilled’ us towards 100 words-a-minute in shorthand, quick-witted Robin Crowther specialised in newspaper law, with his lectures invariably becoming most animated when the focus was on press freedom, the right to a fair trial, and ‘the public interest’.

Born in Durham, Robin had been privately educated and loved sport, earning colours in rugby, rowing and running, and later becoming a well-known figure at Darlington Squash Club.

His passion for human rights evolved after he emigrated to South Africa in 1968 and put his skills as a journalist to good use, writing for a newspaper that was protesting against apartheid.

“When we were kids, there was always a sign – ‘The Action Line’ – on his bedroom door. We didn’t know what it meant at the time, but it turned out to be the name of the newspaper that Dad was working for,” recalls his son Phil.

When he returned to England in 1979, Robin worked as a sub-editor for The Northern Echo before becoming a lecturer at Darlington College. His wife, Barbara, got a job as a nurse at Darlington Memorial Hospital, and they raised four sons.

“We often had visits to the house from political refugees from Africa, seeking Dad’s advice, and he just wanted to help people in whatever way he could,” says Phil.

“He always had this passion for human rights, and he used to go to universities abroad to lecture on press freedom.

“As kids, he’d make us think all the time about what was right and fair, while also letting us be freethinkers. He was just a wonderful human being.”

These days, Phil is founder and chairman of the Newlands Group, which has a varied portfolio of businesses in the care, education, recruitment and commercial property sectors. But the part of his business that makes him most proud is The Robin Centre, named in honour of his Dad, who passed away in 2017.

As the Newlands Group grew, Phil and his business partner, Lisa Spark, decided they wanted to open a centre where people with learning difficulties could be educated in a caring environment, and given a better chance in life.

They saw the potential in an unused part of the TAD Centre, in Ormesby Road. It had lots of windows, plenty of space, and a garden, so they invested heavily in a refurbishment, and opened it in February 2020, only to be forced to close it almost immediately because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

They reopened the centre as soon as they could – the following September – and it’s gone from strength to strength ever since, currently caring for 23 adults through a contract with Middlesbrough Borough Council.

“It’s not about the location, the building, the pictures on the walls, or the furniture. What makes it special is the staff,” says Phil. “Vicky and Tracy do an unbelievable job – they make the magic happen.”

And the women – both mothers themselves – clearly love what they do. “It’s just so rewarding. The service-users are at the heart of everything we do and they make us so proud with what they achieve. They’re a pleasure to teach and a credit to their families,” says Vicky, who has decades of experience in health and social care.

“Some of them have been let down by the education system, and we do our best to fill in the gaps, with literacy, numeracy, creative thinking, decision-making skills, and helping them to form healthy relationships.

“As well as working with them in the centre, we also take them out into the community, and on bus trips to interesting places, like the seaside, bowling, or farms.”

Tracy was working 12-hour shifts in a care home before she joined The Robin Centre, and was “worn out”, but finds huge job satisfaction in her new role.

“Everything about my job makes me happy,” she says. “I walk in every day and see how they are developing as people, and that means the world to me.”

Shaun Connelly, 37, is a prime example of the benefits of The Robin Centre. Before he arrived, he couldn’t distinguish between different coins, so giving him a better understanding of money was one of his three bespoke goals that are set for each service-user.

As a result, he’s now able to go to the supermarket on his own to buy his lunch, and his confidence has soared.

“I’ve made friends here and I think Vicky and Tracy are amazing people,” says Shaun. “If it wasn’t for them and The Robin Centre my life would be a lot, lot worse.”

It’s comments like those that make the decision to set up the centre so worthwhile, and Vicky and Tracy don’t think of it as work.

“It isn’t just a job…” says Vicky. “…It’s our lives,” adds Tracy, as if to finish Vicky’s sentence. “We’re counsellors, teachers, nurses, mams, and sisters – we’re like a family.”

And, although they never met Robin Crowther, they’ve heard enough about him to appreciate why the centre was named after him.

“It obviously means a lot to his family for the centre to bear his name,” says Vicky. “He must have been a very kind person, who cared about others, and I’d like to think he looks down, sees we’re doing a good job, and that his name has been put to good use.”

Tracy nods in agreement. “For someone who wanted to improve the lives of the people he came across, it’s just the perfect legacy,” she adds.

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