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.”
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.