It’s Loneliness Awareness Week next week (17-21 June) and the government also launches its #LetsTalkLoneliness campaign to help reduce the stigma associated with admitting to feeling lonely and the vital importance of social connections.
Our Self Care Social ‘Building Connections’ project is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the National Lottery Community Fund to prevent or reduce loneliness in people with long term health conditions in Coventry. The aim is for all participants to experience a sense of connected community – and that is where Around the Kitchen Table comes in. It’s about getting people together over a shared interest or skill they’d like to learn together. Our video shows ‘Art Breakfast Club’ to give you an example.
We want to tackle isolation and loneliness by sparking the kind of community action that helps people to organise themselves and lead their own solutions. Getting people Around the Kitchen Table is the perfect chance to do this!
The toolkit consists of a set of questions and suggestions to help you think about how to get your own initiative started and it focuses on three areas:
Purpose – what is it that you want to achieve?
People – who do you need to gather around you to make this happen?
Places – where can/will you gather?
In addition to the information, Grapevine’s Jen is also in the toolkit! A real-life person to chat your ideas through with and to help you create a successful Around the Kitchen Table. She can’t wait to hear your ideas – please contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org to get the full toolkit.
“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.”