Encouraging and empowering local people

I can’t believe how much is going on at Manchester Communication Academy.

This afternoon I’m chatting with Jane Ellis who has been with the school’s community department for the last four years.

“I’d worked as a dental nurse for 20 years and was looking for a career change when I applied to work at the school when it first opened in 2010. Back then there were just three staff working on the community programme.”

Now Jane is one of a team of 11 whose job it is to support and outreach in to the school’s wider community.

They hire the school’s facilities to local sports and community groups, including a visually-impaired football team and the local scout group. They put on Adult Education courses where English and maths are in high demand.

There’s a ‘Once Upon A Time’ project for older people where you can drop in for a chat and a look back at local history. Jane’s team even includes a resident archaeologist.

“Why does a school like yours get so involved with its community?” I ask.

“As you know, this area is near the top of all the deprivation statistics,” says Jane. “And there are few other resources in this area.”

“It’s as if you’re a community centre within a school,” I suggest.

“We see our job as removing the barriers that people might have to make changes in their lifestyle,” she says. “That way we can help to improve those statistics.”

“It must be very different from being a dental nurse?” I suggest.

“It’s very rewarding. When you see someone come to, say, one of the classes for the first time, they might be quiet and nervous and think they’re not capable. But then you witness a real change.

“One lady, I remember, said the hardest thing was coming though the doors – it can be daunting for some people to just walk in to the building – but now she volunteers for us and has even got back into employment.”

Jane is currently setting up a ‘time bank’ for the area where local people can share their skills, offering to do small jobs for others.

“It could be doing some shopping for an older person,” she says, “or just sitting, having a conversation. There are a million opportunities.”

I ask why people might want to get involved. “Time banking can be a great stepping stone,” Jane explains. “Some people will do it to get volunteering experience, it will give them the edge when applying for jobs. For others it’ll be a chance to build their confidence.

“And anyone will be able to join without having to give back,” she explains, “no one will be in ‘time debt’.”

Jane is one of the newest members of Forever Manchester’s Local Reference Group, overseeing the allocation of funding from the Fourteen programme. “I got to know the Forever Manchester team when I applied for funding for the Frank Cohen alcohol support centre,” she says.

“What Forever Manchester is doing is amazing. They’re bringing people together, like we’re trying to do, and making people aware of what help and support is out there.”

By spending just a short time with Jane I can tell she is a real ‘people person’. She loves to be able to help and outside of her busy job with the Academy she still finds time to support her local food bank.

To get involved with Jane’s time bank, or any of the other activities on offer, give her a call on 0161 202 0161

“We’ll have a barrel of fun!”

Anthony and I arrive in the wet car park together. “Have you got a spare hand?” he asks, grappling with his audio equipment.

For the next hour and a half Anthony Bradley from Everyday People (read Anthony’s own story here) is booked to deliver another reminiscence session with the older residents of Lightbowne Hall in Moston.

“We run these sessions in sheltered schemes as well as residential homes like Lightbowne,” he explains as we wait for the lift in the smart reception area. “It’s all about connection and compassion, and having a good time. I don’t mind playing the fool for a while if it gets results.”

A couple of staff greet us as we arrive in the upstairs community lounge where Anthony says hello to the eight or nine residents, some watching a game show on TV.

“I’ve come to play a bit of music,” says Anthony cheerfully, “and today I’ve brought a friend along. This is Len.”

“Hello. I’m here to photograph Anthony do the good things that he does,” I say, vaguely.

After diplomatically asking that the TV be switched off Anthony works the room, greeting everyone individually and passing out laminated black and white photographs.

“Hello chuck,” he says to one older lady watching the rain outside. “I got some old photographs of Belle Vue here. Do you remember going on the Bobs at Belle Vue?”

“The Bobs?” she asks, staring hard at the picture. “Is it still going?”

“No, no. They’ve knocked it all down. They’ve got the dogs and the speedway now. What else have we got here?” There’s a photograph of excited children riding on the back of an elephant. “Do you remember the zoo?”

He moves on. “How y’doing, pal? Do you remember Blackpool? With your trousers rolled up?”

Within minutes all the residents and staff are smiling at photographs of schoolchildren with bottles of milk; of ‘Dig for Victory’ war posters; of homemade go-carts; and of kids playing marbles and conkers.

“We used to play hopscotch,” Elsie is telling one of the care assistants.

“So did we,” says the lady next to her. “And kick-can. Do you remember kick-can?”

“Happy days,” says John to no one in particular as he methodically examines picture after picture.

“I’m going to get this show on the road,” Anthony says as he taps on his laptop. “Let’s have some music.

“We’ve all got songs from different periods of our lives that instantly help us tap into certain emotions,” he says to me as familiar music fills the room.

… Pack up your troubles in your ol’ kit bag…

“… and smile, smile, smile,” sings Elsie.

Another care assistant bounces into the room. “Roll out the barrel! Let me hear you all,” sings Sharon, “We’ll have a barrel of fun!”

It seems Anthony’s work is infectious and he’s happy to pass on his techniques to those who spend more time with the residents. “I’ve worked in care for years,” Sharon tells me between songs, “and I love it. Being able to put a smile on people’s faces, that’s a great feeling.”

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“Am I the luckiest man alive?”

My name is Anthony, I’m 40 years old and have been working in the community for just short of 20 years. For the first 14 I worked in the Youth Service and Connexions, what used to be known as the Careers Service.

I was made redundant in 2011 and, to cut a long story short, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, although it didn’t feel like that at the time!

It doesn’t matter how big or hard you are, if you care about the work you do and it is taken away from you, you wobble.

It would have been relatively easy to pick up another local authority job and, with a wife, two children and a mortgage, it would have been the safer bet.

But I knew in my heart of hearts that I could never go back. I had felt stifled for years and it had made me ill.

Instead I decided to follow my dreams.

My mother – Jaqueline – just happened to be going through a similar struggle of redundancy which was a blessing in disguise as we were able to support each other.

I have a huge respect for my mother’s professionalism and devotion to building community spirit. She’s an inspiration to me and the many others she’s supported over the years.

Our relationship is a mixture of loving solidarity tempered with brutal honest communication. It’s not an easy relationship but it’s real in every sense of the word.

Our willingness to continue to do what we loved as well as my mother’s matriarchal desire to support her eldest son with his dream gave us a fighting chance.

We picked up a bit of work, although not enough to pay my wages. But with some financial reshuffling and my modest redundancy payout, we saw it through.

Since late 2011 it’s been a hairy ride: just enough money to keep me afloat, some great projects delivered and some ‘difficult’ ones that made us take a serious look about what we set out to achieve.

Having facilitated hundreds of community projects over the years we’ve found an approach that works and is sorely needed. We use reminiscence as a mindfulness tool to improve emotional and psychological wellbeing as well as building community spirit.

Community wellbeing and togetherness seem to be in short supply in today’s world where apathy, confusion and mistrust create misery and division. For many young people this is the norm but the older generation remember how it used to be.

Despite the poverty and war that many older people experienced, they rememberer a time when people stuck together, when it was natural to leave your door open. This ‘memory’ is the foundation to our work and no amount of clinical intervention can bring it back.

Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with people and communities based upon adherence to a conjured-up definition of normality we seek to unlock creativity, share life stories and celebrate life.

We aim to develop trusting relationships within groups with the understanding that they have all the answers to their individual and collective wellbeing. In professional parlance this is called ‘Asset Based Community Development’ or ABCD.

And my work is as easy as ABCD when I am truly authentic, meaning that I don’t try and pretend to be any other than myself, ‘to thine own self be true…’

I know this sounds very cryptic, but I know from personal experience it’s extremely difficult to truly be yourself when you’re getting paid to tow the company line. There’s a parapet: don’t get shot!

I consider myself to be the luckiest man alive. It’s a privilege to do what I do, to hear the stories of old, to see people come alive in groups where previously there was great tension and anxiety.

I can now say that all those years of professional crisis – where I questioned myself and the organisations in which I worked – were all worth it. I backed myself to the hilt and it paid off!

Anthony Bradley is part of the Local Reference Group for the Fourteen programme in Harpurhey and Moston. His reminiscence company is called Everyday People.

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