A DATING and friendship agency for people with learning disabilities has just received thousands of pounds in funding to bring the project to Greater Manchester.

The Meet N Match initiative is designed give people with learning disabilities and/or autism the opportunity to meet others and potentially find love. It has now been awarded a National Lottery grant of £182,681 to expand.

Meet N Match provide support for the first three dates, assisting people to make the arrangements. The project also provides a chaperoned first date and ongoing support. Up and running in Lancashire since 2016, the service has successfully engaged with around 750 people who have attended Meet N Match events.

The project was started by Lancashire-based learning disability organisation, The U Night Group. It was then taken forward in 2018 by Spring into Action — another learning disability community interest company.

Director of Spring into Action and project co-ordinator of Meet N Match, Lucy Hamlin, said: "We are more than just a dating agency, yes people can join and we can look for matches and support them to start, develop and maintain relationships, but we also provide social activities where people can go for a night out, and relationship training, where we teach people how to date and how to stay safe in relationships.

"Generally, people with a learning disability have limited opportunities to meet their peers and to form lasting connections. This can leave them feeling lonely, isolated and depressed. We know that this is one way of improving people’s physical and mental wellbeing, whilst opening up possibilities for the kind of relationships that others take for granted”

With the funding, the organisation has not only been able to add to their existing Meet N Match Team to support growth, but will also be able to commence the long-term goal of developing the scheme across the Greater Manchester region.

Ms Hamlin added: "People in the Greater Manchester area have been asking us for the last 12 months to develop into that area. This grant will help us expand and develop into the Greater Manchester area. I’m so grateful that the National Lottery Community Fund understood what we are trying to achieve and are supporting the development of the project over the next three years”

The Supported Loving Network, of which Meet N Match is a part of, found that only three per cent of people with a learning disability live with a partner, compared to 70 per cent of the general population. The network also found that good support is the key in enabling people to develop and maintain relationships.

Membership co-ordinator, Lizzie Winkfield, says that the support provided by Meet N Match is invaluable. She said: "For some of our members, this is the first experience of dating that they have ever had. Dating can be a daunting experience for anyone, there are lots of nerves and excitement, but also worry about what to wear and how to act. Nerves can get the better of some people, so having a chaperone really helps people, they can make the initial introductions on a date and then be around for practical or

emotional support before, during and after a date.

"They are not on the date, they are more like in the background and there if a couple needs them.”

Ms Hamlin added that the staff are looking forward to rolling out their activities, saying: "We are so grateful for the National Lottery for their financial support, as it offers a great opportunity for some of the most vulnerable local citizens to get together, with a view to finding anything from someone with a shared interest to finding true love.”