The grateful mother of a young man with autism placed at a specialist residential school was one of the first to congratulate the winner of a prestigious award.

Sarah Russell, the Education and Care Principal at Orbis’ Tŷ Bronllys near Brecon, won gold at the prestigious Wales Care Awards, dubbed the Oscars of social care.

She was presented with the Peter Clarke Award for Promoting Excellence in Services for Children and Young People, sponsored by La Roche.

The glittering ceremony, sponsored by healthcare products company Ontex UK, was hosted by popular tenor Wynne Evans, also known these days as Gio Compario from the Go Compare TV ads.

According to Sarah, from Caerphilly, receiving the award  “means everything to me.”

She said: “It recognises how collaborating with others can work in difficult circumstances. It is also a credit to the team who worked so hard to deal with this challenging issue. I was the manager but there was a large team working together towards the same goal and I know the mother of this young man is very happy at the outcome.

“She know that I was up for the award and texted me before the ceremony to wish me good luck and said I was always a winner in her eyes. She later sent me another message to congratulate me and added she always thought I would win.”

Sarah said she was overcome with emotion and burst into tears after being presented with the trophy.

“I couldn’t stop crying but it was so amazing, so lush to be there with all the other members of the team,” she said.

Sarah, who became the first Principal at Orbis in 2022, leading its care and education services under one role for the first time in its 15-year history, is currently on maternity leave having given birth to her daughter Amber just days before the ceremony.

She said the young man “presented with significant and complex behaviour” and his family and agreed a plan for his first residential placements.

Working with a team of specialist carers, behavioural experts, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists Sarah 0organised everything from the initial assessment right through to staff training, coaching, mentoring supporting and modelling how best to support the young man.

Before the award ceremony she said “Doing so during the Covid-19 restrictions made the task even more challenging, but it worked.

“He is now able to learn again and does so with only minimal support. He is also able to access the community frequently, something which sadly he had been unable to do for some time, and recently was able to return home for a holiday which is something his mum never thought he’d be able to do,” she said.

Lisa Cowles, Head of Therapies at Orbis Education and Care, said the group offers specialist schools and residential homes for children and adults with complex needs associated with autism and social, emotional and mental health needs, and Sarah’s work was “challenging but truly remarkable”.

She said: “The young person has made immense progress, increased his independence, is dependent upon fewer staff, has fewer restrictions, enjoys his life and is enjoying his relationships with his family. Sarah’s work has been inspiring and, as such, I also took the opportunity to share it with the All-Wales Community of Practice for Children and Young People.

“Also, as a by-product, her work has enabled a family to get their lives back, improving their relationships and quality of their lives across the board. It is also something which has inspired his Mum to go and work in a special school, to, in her words, “give something back.”

Mario Kreft, chairman of Care Forum Wales, said the ceremony was all the more poignant because of the Covid pandemic and what front line staff had endured.

He said: “I would like to pay a heartfelt tribute to all the wonderful people who work in social care after the rose magnificently and courageously to meet the unprecedented challenges they have faced over the past couple of years.

“We have always recognised their true value and hopefully now the rest of Wales is also aware of how lucky we are as a nation to  have them providing care and safeguarding our most vulnerable people.

“Our finalists are the best of the best and are here representing the whole social care workforce who all deserve a big pat on the back.

“There are only winners here tonight so it is only fitting that the finalists will receive a gold, silver or bronze Wales Care Award.

“I trust that they will continue to inspire those around them as role models and encourage others to aspire to even greater heights and in the months and years to come.

“In the words of the powerful song, Heroes of our Heart, written by the acclaimed poet Mererid Hopwood and sung by Sir Bryn Terfel, let the Diolch last forever.

”We take our hats off to them.”