A leafy suburb of Welwyn Garden City is an unlikely place to be talking about the herd instincts of elephants. But that's how Annabelle Waterfield, Chief Executive of Hertfordshire Action on Disability (HAD), describes the relationship between HAD and two other charities co-located at the Woodside Centre.
"We work together like elephants. They're my favourite animals - they're clever, caring and support each other. They're fundamentally loyal and hard-working, and surprisingly nimble considering their size. They have good memories but they can, of course, also learn new tricks."
Those new tricks are being learnt all the time, a response to HAD's 26 years at the Woodside Centre, latterly sharing the space with the Hertfordshire Society for the Blind (HSB), The Hertfordshire Hearing Advisory Service (HHAS) and colleagues from Hertfordshire County Council (owners of the Centre).
The focus of all three organisations is on meeting the needs of their service users - many with specific sensory and physical impairments, but all united by their need for accessible and affordable services. Age is another issue for many of them - nationally, 83% of disability is age-related - but is not seen as a limiting factor on what might be provided through the Woodside Centre.
"I'd love to see people visiting for the whole day."says Annabelle. "Get the boring stuff done in the morning, have a wholesome lunch, then get pampered in the afternoon".Transport providing access to a range of services in one visit to an accessible venue is one of the many benefits - in reduced time and cost of travel - of co-locating complementary services together in one place.
The relationship between the three organisations is informal - co-habitation rather than marriage. A number of practical arrangements - shared photocopying and mail handling, and one reception area - are soon to be joined by joint stationery purchasing for increased economy and efficiency. Partnership working also extends to countywide outreach through joint awareness-raising sessions, combined open days at the Woodside Centre, and shared representation and attendance at meetings.
The secret of successful organisational co-habitation at the Woodside Centre has, according to Annabelle, much in common with sustaining the more romantic version of co-habitation."Smile and make people feel welcome and valued. If people feel secure, they're more likely to contribute ideas and find ways to turn them into action. When we have differences of opinion, we resolve them by talking; chatting rather than through formal meetings."
Looking beyond the four walls of the Woodside Centre, the HAD Chief Executive dreams of using the surrounding green spaces for further therapeutic benefit - including a sensory garden, raised beds for growing vegetables, and a play area for children of all abilities. Involving the community in enjoying the garden and helping with the horticulture could involve visitors in growing, cooking and eating local produce.
In a final reflection on the parallels between the three organisations co-locating at the Woodside Centre and the more romantic variety of co-habitation, Annabelle suggests that, ironically, the absence of a formal partnership agreement may be one reason the arrangement works."We're secure in the knowledge that, if the need arises, we can part company without going through a messy divorce!"