Mum in a million
t’s people like Anna Kennedy who put the word ‘great’ into Great Britain. When her two sons, Patrick and Angelo, were diagnosed with autism and rejected by local schools, she took matters into her own hands.
Desperate, she remortgaged her house and used her life savings to start a school for kids with autism.
‘The first day it opened with 19 children we were visited by Ofsted [the regulatory body for schools and children’s services]. I was a nervous wreck,’ says Anna, 56, who’s one of the ‘ordinary’ people the chefs are battling to cook for on BBC2’S Great British Menu.
‘I thought they’d close us down but the inspector said, “If I had a child with autism I’d send him
Ihere”. I almost burst into tears.’
That was in 1999, since when the Hillingdon Manor School has grown to provide for 187 children. Anna has also set up a vocational college, a respite home for adults and another school, and has an international following of more than 55,000 parents of autistic children on her website. The chefs competing this year intend to say a big thank-you to unsung heroes like her.
In the Queen’s 90th birthday year, they’re taking part in gruelling regional heats, facing judges Matthew Fort, Prue Leith and Oliver Peyton in the hope of being chosen to cook at a banquet in the Houses of Parliament for Queen Elizabeth II’S ‘Great Britons’.
‘I felt very honoured when Great British Menu invited me to the banquet,’ says Anna, who was awarded an OBE in 2012 for her services to special needs education and autism.
‘I couldn’t believe it when one of the Michelin-starred chefs taking part in the show visited our school kitchen during the series! The kids were thrilled and cooked a carrot
soup while Chef cooked
Anna and Robin on The People’s Strictly a beef broth. I kept trying to think how the judges would critique the dishes but it was too delicious!’
The banquet itself – the series has already been filmed – was, says Anna, ‘amazing. I loved every minute and met wonderful people – all the time talking about autism, of course! I’m always trying to raise awareness.’
‘Ordinary’ mum Anna on being honoured on Great British Menu and how she set up a school for kids with autism
She still remembers the shock she felt when Angelo, now
23, and Patrick, 26, were diagnosed as autistic aged four and seven.
‘They weren’t coping at school. Patrick was very angry, kicking and screaming a lot, and Angelo went from showing no signs to suddenly losing his speech and a glazed look appearing across his eyes.’
Anna and husband Sean decided to home-school the boys. ‘We felt so alone – there were no support groups so we decided to advertise in a local newspaper and start our own.’
Incredibly, 275 families responded. ‘They just kept coming, desperate parents just wanting their kids to have a chance in life. I thought, “If there’s no school for our babies, I’ll start one of my own”.’
Told about a derelict school that was to be converted into flats, Anna threw herself into fundraising and remortgaging their house to raise the £627,000 required. ‘We put an advert in the newspaper and the phone started ringing with tradespeople offering to help – carpenters, cleaners – it was like TV’S DIY SOS,’ says Anna, who was also chosen to compete on last year’s The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief.
‘I got to dance with Robin Windsor and experience the
Strictly bubble!’ she laughs.
‘It’s such a treat when shows like Strictly and Great British Menu honour people like me, but that’s not why I do it. I’m just a mother who loves her sons and wants the best for them.’
Judges Oliver, Prue and Matthew choose chefs for a banquet
I thought, ‘If there’s no school for our babies, I’ll start one of my own’