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Collaborating with communities in Kilmarnock: “We want to lift people out of really dark places.”

This article was written by David McPhee and originally appeared in Positively Scottish in May 2017

Isolated. Cut-off. Islands.

These are just a few of the new buzz words used to describe people who, often through no fault of their own, become disconnected from mainstream society. If the isolation lasts long enough, they can become forgotten people, living out their life on the fringes. In extreme instances they can feel forgotten in their own minds, where they no longer consider themselves important. Situations as common as the death of a parent or spouse, depression, stress or anxiety related to living on a low income. Feeling like you’re part of a community can be a powerful tonic. It can save lives.

Link Up, a community development programme set up in 2012 by the charity Inspiring Scotland seeks to delve into longstanding societal issues, with workers embedded in areas who aim to form collaborative relationship with the communities in which they operate. Local is everything. Those who work there have to know the people, who they’re helping, and how they can make the situation better. Most importantly, the people of the community have to decide what’s best for them. What they want. Link Up facilitate people to help themselves in their own community.

Outlining the aims of the project, Marie-Amélie Viatte, Link Up Performance Advisor, said: “What [we] aim to do is create a space and a platform and a catalyst in those neighbourhoods to come together to meet one another, develop relationships and to take forward positive action. We’ve had a myriad of groups creating themselves; whether that be archery, creative writing groups to music and cooking and eating together. It’s a very broad range. The possibilities are endless as long as it’s positive and local people want to take it forward.”

I’ll never lose my sense of humour as long as I keep coming here.

I travelled to North West Kilmarnock where I met local worker, Neill Patton, to witness first-hand the social impact many of these initiatives are having on the people of this community.

Our first port of call was a local group that encourages women from across North West Kilmarnock to get together, have a cup of tea, chat and take part in an activity. Despite the different personalities represented, many of the women’s reasons for coming here are too often the same. Flora and Noreen have been coming to the group for four months and a year, respectively. Isolation played a key part in their reasons for coming, as Flora, an Elvis Presley fanatic, points out: “For me it’s a way out as I don’t often get out the door. I wasn’t really going out at all so I enjoy this group.”

Speaking about the effect on her social life, Noreen has found the company and shared concerns cathartic: “I’ve got a lot out of this group. I’m not going out much unless I’m coming to this group. Most of the week I’m not out the house so I find this therapeutic.”

Today they’re making decorative cushions, yet often what they’re doing has a wider social impact, such as knitting bears for Teddies for Tragedies and hats for premature babies. Yet, where there could be sadness, there is laughter and kinship. This feeling is exemplified by Margaret who said: “I come here for a laugh. I’ll never lose my sense of humour as long as I keep coming here.”

In addition to coming together as a group with shared experiences they’ve also become more community-minded and band together to organise events ranging from bingo nights, psychic evenings to women’s fun days and trips, many of which involve others in their local area.

Rose said: “We want our group to be looked upon as providing a service outside of the group. We didn’t have anything for ladies here. It gets people who feel isolated out into the community. It’s a very positive group.”

I’ve ended up getting really involved.

In the afternoon Neill introduces me to two members of The Wednesday Waffle, a group that sprang out of a Link Up consultation with locals and founded on the principle that people meet and eat in a welcoming and safe environment.

Lynn and Doug had both become isolated within their community for quite different reasons; Lynn battles depression whereas Doug is the sole carer for his elderly mother. Yet people come from all over the north west region for a myriad of reasons. Some come simply because it’s a good place to voice concerns about their life and get advice from others who have shared experience.

Lynn said: “It was the community connector who got me coming to the The Waffle as I was in a bad place with depression. I was trying to sort it out myself but they wanted me to get out of the house. I’d been in the house for quite a while. I was changing my medication and when it finally kicked in I decided that I wanted to go. Like most people you’re nervous when you walk into a room like that with different people but they’re all very friendly and talkative. It gives us somewhere to go.”

Doug agrees: “I’m my mother’s carer so I came to the walking football group to kind of get some exercise, know, something to do to get out of the house and someone suggested I come here. Being in The Waffle…it’s good to be in there as it’s good to get breathing space. If there’s any problem that you have you can get some help there. I’ve ended up getting really involved.”

The Waffle, as it’s known locally, seems to function successfully on the age-old premise of sharing. Making food for one another and the simple principle of breaking bread and sharing problems breaks down barriers and forms a sort of social cooperative. Also, as Lynn points out, it’s easier to open up within a group where there is no implied pressure to discuss your problems, like there is at other more targeted meetings.

We all miss the target every now and then. And that’s okay here.

The largest and final Link Up collaboration that Neill wants me to see that day is an archery group, which consists of around 60 members and runs four times a week. They are affiliated with Archery GB, represent many different age groups and, as Neill claims, “it attracts a very particular person who might not ordinarily be involved with community groups. For a lot of people this is their first experience of being part of a community group.”

Archer, James, who was referred by his Community Connector based at his local GP service, states openly that being part of a club like this has helped him greatly with social anxiety. He said: “It’s really helped me out. I suffer with depression, anxiety and stress and it helps to get me out. It’s increased my confidence overall. I still get bad days but it’s less and less. My friend group has increased because of this.”

Coaches Julie and Vicki very much believe in the sport as a way to meet new people and a safe space to bolster self-esteem and laugh at your mistakes. As Vicki states: “We all miss the target every now and then. And that’s okay here.”

Marie-Amélie Viatte echoes the sentiment of gradual confidence building within what Link Up are hoping to achieve: “We want to encourage people to come out, have fun and do some positive stuff together. Gradually you start to notice people building up their sense of themselves. Bit by bit you help them reinvent themselves into something other than what they’ve been depicted as. The point of the project is quite profound, we hope to lift people out of really dark places.”

This article was written by David McPhee and originally appeared in Positively Scottish in May 2017

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