A WOMAN who helped save the Chiltern Centre for disabled children in Henley from closure has retired after more than 20 years’ service.
Marian Lee helped start an appeal group after the centre in Greys Road was closed in 2003.
She was then interim manager and spearheaded protests which led to the centre being re-opened the following year.
She continued as manager until last year, when she took a step back and became director of services.
More than 50 people were at the centre on Monday for Mrs Lee’s retirement party, including chairman of trustees Paul Barrett and town councillors Pam Phillips and Stefan Gawrysiak.
Her husband Peter, son Mark, daughter-in-law Pamela and grandchildren Harriet, 11, and Callum, seven, also attended, along with current and former staff.
There was a buffet for guests as well as a cake, flowers and messages book for people to fill in.
Vanda Norvid, a former member of staff, wrote that Mrs Lee was “Wonderwoman”.
The 59-year-old was given presents including an iPad mini, a pot plant and a painting made by children who attend the centre.
Mrs Lee, of St Helen’s Crescent, Benson, said: “It’s time to retire. I was asked by the families and young people to get the centre up and running and provide these services.
“I’ve done that now and it has been very successful. I’ve had lots of fun along the way and it’s time now for me to let somebody else take up the mantle.
“There are some people here who I’ve known since they were toddlers. To see them develop into wonderful young adults, most of them with jobs, is brilliant.
“It has been a huge privilege to be part of their lives and they are all like my extended family. We’ve had sad times and lost some children but we’ve had lots of laughs too.”
Keith Manning, who succeeded Mrs Lee as manager, said: “Since joining the centre I’ve seen and heard so much about Marian and the hard work she puts in. As the centre manager, I can actually see that work on a day-to-day basis in the level of care and teamwork here. She will be sorely missed by a lot of people.”
Mrs Lee joined the centre, which was then known as the Chiltern Resource Centre, in 1992 and worked there for 11 years until it was closed when Oxfordshire County Council cut the social services budget by £9 million.
Along with Bill Pattison, she helped found the Chilterns Action Group, which raised £350,000 to buy the centre from the council and formed a board of trustees. The centre then re-opened as an independent charity.
Mrs Lee said: “The Chiltern Centre is very important. It is first and foremost a lifeline and a chance for parents and young people to have time out. When the centre was closed the families in Henley and the surrounding area were devastated.
“Without the commitment of the likes of Vanda Norvid, Jenny Jay, Alva Young, Vanessa Read, Elaine Willis and others we couldn’t have started it up again.
“The local community has been great and the Henley Standard has always been behind us.
“I also couldn’t have done it without my husband and family, who have been involved the whole way through.”
The centre offers respite care for more than 85 families in Henley and the surrounding villages.
It was judged to be “outstanding” by Ofsted seven years in a row from 2007 to 2013. Mrs Lee was named carer of the year by the Oxfordshire Care Forum in 2006 and in 2009 Oxfordshire County Council awarded her its Aiming High Carer of the Year award.
She oversaw the construction of a new £350,000 extension at the centre in 2011 and in 2012 the charity won the Queen’s Award for voluntary services.
It raised £350,000 after launching its Building Our Future Appeal in February 2011 when it had low cash reserves and was facing the threat of closure.
The appeal, which was supported by the Henley Standard, was re-launched as the Chiltern Jubilee Appeal in April 2012 to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee and reached its target eight months later.
Mr Barrett said: “We could not have opened if it hadn’t have been for Marian who took a leap of faith and put her career on the line. She was the rock on which we built the Chiltern Centre.
“The fact that she is now departing leaves us bereft in many ways. She’s quite a lady and I know the achievement she’s proudest of is that she was able to carry on giving care to the people who really need it.”
Mr Barrett revealed that the centre would be introducing the Marian Lee Charitable Fund, which will provide money for overnight and day care to families who are not eligible for council funding.
He said: “She really has been a beacon on the hill and an example to all of us. She deserves her time now with her family.”