“And again there was that sense of relationships being able to keep on giving and reconfigure themselves around new problems.”
Our CEO Clare Wightman has written a new blog for an independent network of social change activists known as ‘A Better Way’.
Many of the members, of which she is one, are from the voluntary sector but others are from different sectors. Their common vision is of helping to liberate people’s potential rather than writing them off as problems, difficult to reach localities and hard hit communities.
Clare’s latest blog is about services having their place but also their limits. What people need in life, she says, is other good people around them who can back them up, encourage, problem solve and find opportunities.
The outcome being that these people and networks of help are there when services can’t be.
It doesn’t mean that services can walk away and leave people to it. It means that this is the kind of help that flexes, reciprocates and strengthens in ways services can’t.
“It’s our way of creating ‘organisations without walls’ where people and solutions come first, not organisational identities and self interests.”
A special event recently brought together a group of ‘doers’ helping to grow a movement of people who have a long term health condition or chronic illness in common. The idea of the event was simply to celebrate how far they’ve come over the past few months.
The Saturday afternoon shindig was hosted inside an impressive shop front theatre that inhabits a once disused retail premises in a Coventry arcade.
Setting the term ‘disused’ to one side, it could almost be a metaphor for the transformation undergone by the woman who organised the ‘Celebration of Doers’ – from teacher, to patient, to community organiser and social entrepreneur.
To tell Melissa Smith that in just four years she’d grow a community of thousands based around the idea that creativity boosts wellbeing – and have won an ‘Inspiring Entrepreneur’ award from Coventry University and Santander – would have been met with complete disbelief. It has been a long and often painful road.
Following a spinal injury after a routinely energetic gym session and subsequent injury at work, Melissa was diagnosed with a rare, incurable condition called Symptomatic Tarlov Cyst Disease – painful fluid-filled cysts rooted in the vertebrae at the base of the spine.
So rare in fact that it took many months and numerous appointments to convince specialists that the condition was the problem and not underlying stress from a recent close bereavement. Melissa also later developed ME.
Even with a diagnosis, Melissa’s life became a waiting game – for the next appointment, consultation or surgery and all the while focussing on every symptom. Her teaching career was over. But some tough love from her older sister (who also works for Grapevine) provided the impetus she needed to take a love of art and turn it into a business.
“I didn’t want to swim or do yoga. I wanted to put on my pink gloves, box, flip tyres and do wolf runs. But I couldn’t any more. I was living my story but without a call to action. I was struggling.
“My sister said I should focus on what I can do, not what I can’t. So my passion for using creativity as a tool to feel good became my reason to get back up. Doodling with my pad and pens had seen me through many dark times in hospital and at home.”
Armed with a grant from UnLtd and the community building tools she was learning from Grapevine, Melissa started to carve out a name for her Feel Good Community both on and offline.
Self Care Social came along a few months later with some funding from the NHS’s Integration Better Care Fund and Grapevine employed Melissa. The idea being that self-care when you’re poorly is hard to practice alone at home and much easier to share with others who understand. Although, it is sometimes hard to attend the social side of Self Care Social, no-one is ever ‘written off’ and they can come when they are able.
And now this is Melissa. A fully fledged community organiser, movement builder and social entrepreneur in the making. It may take her a bit longer than other people (her own words) but she will get there, altering direction slightly with new challenges but always on course.
She’s bringing a Festival of Creativity and Wellbeing to life at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum on 15 June with her friend Kerry. Feel Good product development and an online shop are also coming soon.
Back at the celebration party, if anyone understands what it takes to show up and get on with things, it’s Melissa. Gathering these people together for a fun few hours of sharing games, food, creativity and stories seems a fitting way to mark everyone’s achievements thus far.
“I’m meeting more new and different types of people than I ever would have as a teacher.
“I think now that becoming poorly was a catalyst for creating change in my life. I had thought there might be a cure and that doctors would have all the answers.
“The challenges I’ve faced have brought creativity, community, positivity and a new outlook for me. A new way of doing things.
“It’s given me a voice and Grapevine has given me the platform to do all this. They’re willing to take the risk on ideas and people like me.”
We’re celebrating Melissa’s story as one of our 25 stories for #25yearsofGrapevine sparking community action, strengthening people and shifting power in Coventry and Warwickshire.
The third in our series of 25 stories for 25 years of Grapevine is the story of Gaynor Leech.
Gaynor was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and as a result of radiotherapy treatment the following year, she developed Lymphoedema – a life-long condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissues.
Although there is no cure, it can be managed and treated but this has meant a huge change in lifestyle for Gaynor. It hasn’t held her back though from establishing a community of help for others with the same condition. And this is where Grapevine comes in.
Her involvement with Self Care Social, Feel Good Ambassadors and the Collective Leaders Group has in her own words, “transformed the way I think about volunteering. I have found a way to incorporate everything I have learned from Grapevine into my lymphoedema support group.”
She admits her approach to running Lymph-What-Oedema (L-W-O) had previously harked back to a time before the internet where geography determined reach and having a platform to share stories on a much wider scale simply didn’t exist. Gaynor takes up the tale from her first Innovation Factory with Grapevine…
“I am fortunate, I do not have a problem in walking into a room full of strangers, but it was clear from the start that this was very different from anything I had ever attended before.
“I had struggled with both the business side and getting our voice heard in the community.
“I was so out of my depth and comfort zone on the first course but it really did change my thinking. There were so many ideas, the language used was different, the importance of storytelling, the pledges all very new to me.”
Helping people and communities use their untapped power to create better futures – strengthening through natural networks of community support that bring opportunity and help people take charge of their lives is what Grapevine is all about. This has certainly proved true for Gaynor.
“The most important aspect of working with Grapevine is the people I meet. Each and every one of them either lives with a long-term condition or takes care of someone who has a challenged life, and yet they are passionate about helping others with daily challenges.
“I come home feeling inspired and this then reflects in my approach to life and volunteer work. Through the storytelling, I can see how my writing style has changed.
“Living with lymphoedema can be very isolating so working on social self-care is very important to my group. A place where they will not be judged and a place where we can share knowledge, information and community. I do not want others to feel the way I did when I was first diagnosed.
For those in similar situations, Gaynor’s advice is to “look around at your local community, network – see who is out there, ask for help. See if there are organisations that are of similar size to yours or with the same ethos.
“The training I have received from Grapevine has been invaluable – the connections you make will be one of your biggest assets.”
And what does the future hold?
“The journey of living with lymphoedema and running L-W-O are things I would never have envisaged for myself. Even with all the knocks and frustrations, I love what I do, I love that I have a purpose in life and while I do take good care of myself, I love being busy. Importantly, I love that in a small way L-W-O has contributed to raising awareness of lymphoedema.
“Thank you to Melissa, Naomi and Dawn for the encouragement, help, patience, time and support that has helped me transform my thinking of volunteering in the 21st century voluntary sector.”
The two Mels – not to be confused with classic comedy duo The Two Ronnies – are today giving a masterclass on movement building at the Social Media Exchange event in north London.
Otherwise known as #SMEX19, the day-long training day is about the power of storytelling to help those in the charity sector harness the impact of stories to raise awareness of their cause, spark action and bring more people (and funds) into their world.
Grapevine Deputy CEO Mel Smith and her sister, community organiser Melissa Smith, are hosting an interactive session called ‘Building a movement on a shoestring’ which they hope will inspire members of their audience to nurture their own communities, bringing out people’s “hidden gifts” and enjoying some “golden moments”.
The latter two movements share a common thread in trying to tackle the widespread social issue of isolation. While Connecting for Good cuts across loneliness in all people and communities, Self Care Social’s community is dedicated to those with long term health conditions and chronic illnesses. Both movements are Coventry-based and by Grapevine, with funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and Better Health, Better Care, Better Value programme respectively.
As with any honest imparting of knowledge, Mel and Melissa will also share some of the mistakes they’ve made along the way and the lessons they learned from them.
To mark the event, Mel recorded a short vlog and has also written an interesting blog about the emergence of a new movement called Swimmers Social which is tapping into the collective power of a group of – you guessed it – social swimmers. We are hosting her blog on our Connecting for Good site here.
The Building Connections Fund provides a cash injection for 126 much-needed organisations and projects throughout England that are finding innovative ways to tackle the ongoing social issue of loneliness.
The fund was created in 2018 in partnership between the government, Big Lottery Fund* and the Co-op Foundation.
Minister for Loneliness, Mims Davies, said: “There is no one cause of loneliness and therefore no one solution. That is why we are working alongside a broad range of businesses, voluntary organisations and local councils to ensure that those who feel alone are best supported.”
The announcement about Grapevine’s successful bid came just before Christmas and will help bolster growing Coventry-based initiative Self Care Social.
The movement’s vision is of a connected culture of self care for the estimated 99,000 – or approximately one in three – residents in Coventry who have a long term health condition.
The vision itself was co-created by some of the people it is aimed at – including former teacher Melissa Smith, who was forced to find an alternative career after being diagnosed with the rare spinal condition Symptomatic Tarlov Cyst Disease in 2014.
Melissa went on to secure a role as a community organiser for Grapevine through the Better Health, Better Care, Better Value programme and build her own social enterprise Feel Good Community.
She and the Self Care ‘socialites’ hope to gather more people in from the fringes to support one another’s ideas, build collective action for positive change and most important of all, make the journey together. The Building Connections funding will help them do that.
If you or someone you know would like to get involved in Self Care Social – sharing self care tips, making friends, telling your story to inspire others, organising social events… making cake – visit Self Care Social on Facebook or drop us a line here and we’ll pass your details on. There are free events coming up in January and February.
Read more about how Self Care Social got started on the Feel Good Com website here.
*The Big Lottery Fund becomes the National Lottery Community Fund from 30 January.
Longer term projects such as Help and Connect and Better Lives have gone from strength to strength, building the capacity of individuals and families to lead the lives they want and deserve.
Accelerate continues to help people with a learning disability or autism find secure, paid work.
System change in Willenhall through the Ignite partnership with Central England Law Centre has made tangible in-roads into nurturing strong communities who get early and effective help when they need it.
And the young people involved in Teenvine Plus and Coventry Youth Activists have progressed in leaps and bounds throughout the year with – amongst other things – appearances on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio, a performance at the Godiva Festival and a weekend away to see a gig in Brighton! Phenomenal.
The Big Plan is helping young people, alongside their families and friends, to think creatively about and plan for the life that they want after school.
Plus our involvement in Warwickshire is expanding from Warwickshire Empowerment Service with the new Community Powered Advocacy service, aimed at people with a ‘vulnerability’ not receiving services from social care.
Not to mention our CEO Clare Wightman travelling the length and breadth of the country making sure we’re at all the right tables for change.
There is also some exciting news coming in January on two more new projects. Fingers crossed it is all we hope for.
Wishing you a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year from everyone at Grapevine.
Kyla from the Better Lives project joined Coventry City Council engagement staff for a training day on ‘Co-Production in Public Engagement and Consultation Principles and Practices.’
Grapevine was offered a place on the course as one of the council’s community partners and Kyla can now share what she learned with the rest of the team.
Wednesday 21 November
Project worker Molly from Teenvine Plus and Warwickshire Empowerment Service has started collecting Christmas shoe boxes to donate to Coventry Open Christmas – a project that provides shelter and food each year to the homeless and lonely over the festive period.
Each shoebox (or alternative small cardboard box) can contain items such as toiletries, sweets, hats and gloves – basically anything that might help someone feel a little brighter on Christmas morning. Click the link above if you’re interested in joining in.
The weekly handicraft group at Bell Green Library taught her how – next on the list are tiny cardigans! Join in each Thursday from 10am – 12 noon (50p for tea/coffee). Michelle attends so she can make connections for people with a learning disability in Coventry who don’t use formal services.
Local photographer and friend of Grapevine Alan Van Wijgerden released another of his 50 one-minute films of Coventry people talking about what they’re up to – this time featuring Grapevine’s Melissa!
See what she has to say about how her health problems set her on a path to combining creativity and bringing people together in the shape of Feel Good Community.
Friday 23 November
Teenvine Plus and Coventry Youth Activists posted pics of their evening out on Thursday to Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market – looks like they had a ‘fantastisch’ time!
Read what Stay Up Late had to say about CYA’s recent stay to Brighton here.
Monday 26 November
Act Build Change founder Steph Leonard (and regular Grapevine trainer) is visiting to shadow and advise on our work on anti-isolation movement Connecting for Good – look out for a new video coming out very soon featuring one of the people we’ve met.
It is also the first day of a full team (Ben, Alex and Helena) working on the new Community Powered Advocacy service in Warwickshire.
This fresh and innovative service is aimed at helping people with a ‘vulnerability’ overcome their immediate problems, build their capacity to speak up for themselves and connect them to other people in their community. Watch this space as the team start connecting with other services and the people they are there to help.
Looking forward to seeing what the rest of this week might bring.
It is hoped the inquiry will enable civil society to effectively support the next decade of a changing society. That although our expectations of organisations and institutions are changing and our demands on their practices and accountability are increasing, the energy all that creates can be used to bring about positive change.
Civil society involves everyone and its future depends on us.
To learn more about how Grapevine is working in this shifting landscape across Coventry and Warwickshire, choose a link below: