Walking around the fantastic ROF 59 activity centre on Durham Way South, the personal attachments to its founder aren’t glaringly obvious.
But scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find so many touching tributes John Finley has made to his proud family history.
Both his mother and grandmother worked in the munitions factory on Aycliffe Business Park during World War Two – they’re pictured among some of the many war-time mementos pinned to the walls.
It’s the fundamental reason ROF 59 is named so, after Royal Ordnance Factory, number 59, which made bombs and bullets for the battlefield.
Now approaching its fourth birthday – and after some hefty investment by Finley Leisure, one of John’s companies – a colourful new sensory room is ROF 59’s latest addition.
Spider-man and Beauty and the Beast’s ‘Belle’ were on hand as Aycliffe mayor Mary Dalton cut the ribbon at the ‘Sensory Squadron’s’ new facility.
The £6,000 sensory room will provide children and babies with autism and other learning disabilities with a space to enjoy and embrace the calming and soothing environment provided by sensory rooms.
But there’s an underlying reason John and his family wanted to create the special place.
His younger sister, Dorothy, was left permanently brain damaged after suffering a fit when she was just three months old. John’s parents spent their lives caring for Dorothy, who’s now 57, 24-7.
“I know what it’s like for parents who have children with special needs,” says John.
“I saw my Mam and Dad care for Dorothy around the clock. Back in those days they rarely got a break. And all parents need a break.
“With this new sensory room, we’ve tried to create a space where parents can leave their children in the capable hands of our trained staff while they go for a coffee, or a meal, and take time out.”
ROF 59 leisure manager Chilli Mowbray, who has an autistic child, is one of a number of trained staff who are on hand.
“We felt there wasn’t a facility of this type in the region for parents who have children with special learning needs, and you have to travel a long way to find it,” said Chilli.
“These rooms can stimulate their senses but they can also help them to relax. More importantly, we’ll have staff on hand to look after young people in the sensory room, which gives parents the opportunity to take a break and chat with other parents.
“Parents don’t always get the chance to talk to other parents about their experiences and struggles, and this will give them that opportunity but in an informal, relaxed environment where they know their children are safe and having a good time.”
Aycliffe mayor Mary Dalton and deputy mayor Val Raw helped to launch the official opening of the sensory room.
Mayor Dalton said: “I think it’s absolutely wonderful, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it before.
“I know some parents have to travel for something like this, so for us to have this on our doorstep in Newton Aycliffe is fantastic.”
ROF 59 built the new sensory room with guidance from the Pioneering Care Partnership (PCP) in Newton Aycliffe and nearby Tree Tops Nursery.
PCP chief executive Carol Gaskarth said: “It’s a fantastic new facility, not only for the people of Newton Aycliffe but the wider community as well.
“It’s a brilliant place for young people to come and enjoy, but ROF 59 also provides a wonderful opportunity for children to have a bit of a break, as the staff here can monitor the children and mams and dads can relax and chat with other parents.
“We’re delighted to have worked with ROF 59 on this project and we’ll certainly be able to refer families here for those who will benefit from a sensory room like this.”
ROF 59 re-opened as an activity centre nearly four years ago, rejuvenating the old Presswork Metals building and former World War II munitions factory into a 21st Century entertainment and leisure venue, after an initial £1.1m investment.
The 70,000 sq ft centre, which created 30 new jobs when it opened in September 2015, now includes the Blitz restaurant, the Bunker bar/lounge, ice cream parlour, events room, trampoline park, adventure walls including the ‘leap of faith’, Virtual Reality suite, Battlefield outdoor laser combat, outdoor play area, beer garden, 19m drop-zone, climbing centre and a 200m zip line.