Just over the famous Peace Bridge sits a small block of around 200 houses in an area called Mid-Waterside. We meet Brónagh, Harriet, Darach and Anna from the Mid-Waterside Residents Association, a small charity who started up 3 years ago with the goal of cleaning up the back alleys that had become overgrown, neglected and a hot spot for fly-tipping. Since they started the group, the residents have cleaned up all 9 back alleys and received funding to buy window boxes to brighten up the street, install solar lights to light up the back alleys, and plant small plots of ‘dead’ land with flowers. They also hope to get some murals painted on some of the alley walls in the future.
“We want wee pockets of beauty that can then hopefully spread. The crux of everything is that we want to make the place better and more beautiful, encourage biodiversity, increase community spirit, decrease isolation, reduce anti-social behaviour, and make it a beautiful place to be. We want to give people pride in their own area.”
Some of the challenges that they face with the residents association are:
- Getting the word out about the association. They have a Facebook page but not everyone is online. To try and overcome this they have started sending out a bi-annual newsletter, posting flyers through doors and getting the word out through word of mouth. However, many of the houses are rentals so people are always coming and going.
- Educating people on how to look after their window boxes. They also hope to plant a wild-flower garden but will need to find someone to help with the upkeep of it.
- Finding a space to have their monthly meetings in that is more neutral as they currently use a church hall. Although they encourage everyone to come along, they think that some people don’t feel welcome because of the meeting location. However, they fall between two different community areas and don’t have a community centre of their own that is close by.
- Finding out who owns certain bits of land — “that’s what takes the time. We’d be able to plant up a bit of land in no time at all, but finding out who owns it is a long process.”
They have a close relationship with the council who support the group’s activities but when asked if they thought the council should be responsible for the cleanup, they told us how the back alleys are ‘no man’s land’ and so they had no choice but to take it into their own hands as the council wouldn’t take ownership. However, they actually prefer to take on the responsibility themselves as it means that they can do what they want with them and part of their aim is to promote active participation in the community and for it to be a community-led initiative. That way they bring the community together and get people to take personal pride in the area and look after it for the future.
Today we also met Siobhan, the founder and facilitator of Momentum Community Choir. Momentum follows the ethos and approach of SingTonicity, a method and training developed by Siobhan that uses singing to improve health and wellbeing. There are no auditions — anyone who turns up can join in without judgement. An appointed ‘welcome hostess’ ensures every person who comes through the door is greeted individually by name. A sense of camaraderie and fun is fostered through social events. Rehearsals are every two weeks, reducing the pressure of a weekly commitment. Members sometimes drop off when life gets in the way and are welcomed back anytime.
“You can’t worry and sing at the same time”
When starting out, the choir was advised against becoming a charity due to the lengthy registration process. While being an unincorporated group has worked fine for them so far, it can be challenging to find funding. They currently rely on voluntary membership fees, funding from a large local company’s outreach scheme and fees for performing at events. Siobhan would like to find additional funding to invest in training and workshops for the choir’s members and to have reserved funds to sustain the choir for the future. Funding expertise is not something the choir has readily available:
“It’s an area we need to improve on. We have no one from that field. There’s a mindset you have to get into, the jargon that have to you use.”
Alongside Momentum, Siobhan is thinking about how to ensure Singtonicity as a method carries on and can benefit more people. She has developed a course to train practitioners but is struggling to find funding to run it. She is currently exploring different financing options to figure out what’s the best model.
“Singtonicity would die on its feet if I stopped. I want it to live on. Too many come back with too good a feedback for it to stop.”
Today we visited the Ullans Speakers Association in Ballymoney, commonly known as the FUSE centre. The association was set up 12 years ago with the aim of promoting the Ullans (also known as Ulster-Scots) language and culture. The centre is home to FUSE FM, a community radio show that runs daily from 9am to 9pm. Outside of the studio, they offer language, craft and music classes, as well as putting on several large events throughout the year.
“We’re so much more than a radio station– it’s a whole culture thing for us.”
While on paper FUSE centre may appear to have a specific remit, in practice they’ve expanded to become a general resource for the Ballymoney community. When a community centre closed down, FUSE took on hosting a weekly senior citizens social group. Louise teaches music in a local school that otherwise wouldn’t be able to offer music classes to its pupils. The organisation has picked up services previously provided by the council, such as putting on the town’s Christmas lights. Louise and Adrian each told a story of being stopped by strangers asking for help, one with a benefits claim and another with a funding application. Although having such a positive reputation is gratifying, it can be hard to manage this expanded role as a team of volunteers.
“The community have become reliant on people like us. There isn’t really anywhere else these people can get guidance. The FUSE centre has got this name, we’re known in the community. I think people think we’re paid.”
Coupled with the charity’s busy schedule of activities, this reliance is demanding on the centre’s directors, who each spend upwards of 20 hours a week working for FUSE. However, none of them wishes to be paid — rather they’d like to have the funds to hire someone part-time to take on some of the admin work.
“Sometimes I’m exhausted. I’d like to get my life back!” — Louise
Finding sustainable funding is a challenge for the organisation. They previously had funding from the Department for Communities, but this stopped when Stormont (the Northern Ireland Assembly) was suspended 3 years ago. Rent is currently covered by a Halifax grant however this finishes at the end of the year so the team are searching for future funding options. FUSE relies upon radio advertising as an alternative income stream when necessary, although they would prefer to keep their shows ad-free for their listeners.
Running a radio show brings additional challenges around volunteer management. FUSE FM cannot have any dead air time, or their radio licence could be revoked by Ofcom. Therefore they are heavily reliant on the commitment and reliability of their 20-odd volunteer presenters to ensure that there are never any gaps in the broadcast— “we tell them they need to treat it as seriously as a job”.
We travelled to the town of Limavady where we met Emma, Lesley and David from Fibromyalgia Awareness Northern Ireland (FMANI). Fibromyalgia is a chronic illness that causes widespread pain all over the body, chronic fatigue, impaired short term memory and immune dysfunction (to name just a few of the 220 symptoms). FMANI are a small charity who work to educate and raise awareness of this debilitating condition. They also run a charity shop and offer support services for those living with fibromyalgia through understanding, counselling and practical help.
They rely entirely on a team of 12 volunteers, most of whom suffer from fibromyalgia themselves. However, they spoke of their constant struggle to try and get more volunteers to come and help. David put the main reason down to people not knowing enough or understanding about this ‘unseen’ illness — something that the charity is working hard to change.
Another related challenge they face is how difficult it is relying on those who all suffer from fibromyalgia. Each volunteer has a specific responsibility within the charity, but if they become unwell, then that job often just doesn’t get done. This leaves pressure on those who volunteer to be well enough for their shift — others can try and cover their role but because most suffer from chronic fatigue, it takes a toll on those who have to manage their energy levels carefully each day.
“We would love someone who’s ‘able bodied’ to come and help us. We get loads of shop donations but no one will volunteer.”
They currently rely on fundraising activities to bring in an income and have not applied for funding for the last few years. One reason for this is that due to the nature of their illness and chronic fatigue, David and the rest of the volunteers don’t have the physical energy to spend time applying for funding as well as running the charity. The charity shop just about covers its costs, leaving its main purpose as increasing awareness in the local area. One of their main sources of income is through their street collections — they have 40 scheduled for the next year.
Based close to Derry city centre is a small mental health support charity called Me4Mental. Originally starting as a Facebook group 3 years ago, they have since grown and now rent a building where they offer 1:1 and group support sessions, advocacy services, online and phone support, and education and training programmes. We spent the day with husband and wife team, Patricia (Chairperson) and Martin (Vice Chair), talking about the work that they do.
Me4Mental is run entirely by a dedicated team of volunteers. They offer a ‘listening ear’ to anyone who walks in through the door and Martin emphasised that the unique position of the charity is based not only on their lack of waiting list and availability of walk-in services but their offer of long term mental health support.
“Mental health doesn’t sleep and so we can’t.”
For Patricia and Martin, it is incredibly important that all the volunteer positions, including their own, remain unpaid. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, they want to make sure that ‘egos’ stay out of the way which they argue can come into play when money is present. Secondly, they spoke of the importance of maintaining their core value of ‘people helping people’ which drives their mission. If people were being paid for what they do, then they felt like this would undermine their core values and ethos of the charity.
“We make sure that we stay humble and constantly remind ourselves what we’re doing and why. Martin and I have been put up for awards but we always say no — unless it’s for the whole team, we won’t accept.”
Thirdly, by keeping an entirely volunteer-led team, it means that if people fall ill due to their mental health or other reasons, there’s no pressure or obligation to come into the centre. Although some may think that this would lead to an unstable model, Patricia and Martin have never found this and have a strong team who are always there to provide support to one another and pick up where someone might have left off. It’s much more important for them to be able to provide this essential flexibility and pastoral support to each of their volunteers.
In the next year, they want to be able to take their services into the community and reach people in their homes, but otherwise they are happy with where they are now. They recently received a donation of £11.6k from a local pageant which they were over the moon with and which has left them in a stable financial position. With their ‘dream team’ in place and a dedicated volunteer funding officer in place, they just want to continue helping people and supporting the 845 people who walked through the door last year.
After a scenic drive down winding country lanes, we arrived at Rouskey Community and Development Association, a community organisation and centre serving a rural farming area in County Tyrone. The Centre was built 20 years ago with Millenium funding from the National Lottery and is now a busy hub for the local village and beyond, offering a range of activities. During our evening visit alone, the centre hosted a children’s art class, a pilates class and a farmers’ group talk.
We met Bridie, one of the association’s 10 committee members. Talking to volunteers, it became clear that Bridie is the driving force behind the organisation’s work.
“It’s all because of Bridie. She has a notion of the needs of the area. It’s like a needs analysis, without all the paper.”
We spoke to Bridie and others about some of the challenges they face as a rural community centre.
- The small size of the centre is part of its appeal — “it’s up close and personal, cosy and welcoming”. However, it’s also a limitation — many of the classes are at full capacity, and it’s a tight squeeze in the kitchen when hosting an event (the centre is often used for teas following communions and funerals at the church across the road). Some of the committee members would like to extend the building if they could find funding.
- The association has generally managed to find sufficient funding. However, the short term nature of grants prevents them from planning ahead — “what we’d really like is funding for 5 years”.
- They have access to most of the skills they need through a solid volunteer base of around 40 people, but they are lacking IT and marketing skills.
- A big challenge is getting young people involved; they have little free time around school and activities, and many move away for higher education.
“You’d like to see more young ones coming in — new blood, contributing new ideas.”
Today we drove into the heart of county Derry to visit Patricia and Mary, who are two committee members of Moneydig Rural Network Group. We met them at the organisation’s HQ — Patricia’s home.
The group was originally set up 20 years ago to demand public services for the tiny hamlet of Moneydig, including streetlights, a postbox and litter picking — “whatever’s in Moneydig, the group’s had to fight for it”. After 11 years, the residents’ ‘wishlist’ had largely been achieved. However, Patricia and others felt there were less visible needs for the group to tackle: social isolation and a lack of community cohesion. Mary joined, and with the rest of the committee, they started organising events for the surrounding area. Over the past 9 years, their reach and programme have grown. Alongside large annual fixtures like a Christmas Party, OAP luncheon and Gig in the Dig festival, they put on an array of events for all ages including quiz nights, murder mystery parties and health and wellbeing courses.
“It’s quiet here. The only things happening here is us doing it. I think we changed Moneydig. We’ve actually put it on the map. Before the council hardly knew where we were — they came to see us one time and got lost and we had to go looking for them.”
The key word in the organisation’s name is ‘Network’; while they champion self-sufficiency, this is not for the hamlet but a broader network of rural localities. Resources and skills are acquired and then shared across the North West of Northern Ireland. For example, they have their own equipment for events — “every chance we get we buy stuff for ourselves”. These items are then circulated as needed — “that sweet trolley has been places!”.
“We’re too small a group to do it alone, we need help from everybody. If there’s somebody in another group that has a skill, we ask them.”
Patricia dedicates most of her time and energy to the group and other activities supporting the rural community — she was awarded an MBE in 2014 for her efforts. As a driving force behind much local action, her biggest concern is ensuring sustainability.
“My only worry is — who comes after Patricia? What happens when I’m not in the middle of it?”
The organisation is taking active steps to address this challenge. What started as committee members’ daughters playing in the next room while their mothers held meetings has evolved into a legitimate Shadow Committee, made up of children aged 8 to 12. The Shadow Committee meets and does real work, including organising and hosting the first Moneydig’s Got Talent event last year. The organisation Supporting Communities came to film the group to use in training about succession planning.
“They meet when we meet. We try to involve them in everything. You need to plant the seed of community work when they’re wee.”
Today we met Fergal from the Inside Out Programme, a youth initiative based in the village of Claudy. Running personal development programmes that complement formal schooling through accredited courses and projects, Inside Out work to engage local youth and help boost their future career prospects. Inside Out was started to address the lack of youth activities within Claudy. On paper, Claudy ranks well on socio-economic indicators, but Fergal told us that in reality, the use of urban indicators doesn’t account for the quality of life that comes with living in a rural village without readily available facilities and amenities. Claudy’s relative affluence became a sticking point for Fergal and he found that he struggled to get local funding because the village wasn’t seen as being in an area of high deprivation and so the ‘need’ there is not recognised.
“You can survive without leaving Claudy, but it’s the quality of life that’s the question. There’s not much for the youth without them having to travel.”
Between 2007–2009 (the “peak years”), Fergal, along with two other paid members of staff, were running youth activities almost every day, delivering projects, hosting workshops, social visits and training. However, the funding then ran out and they had to cut back their services and staff, leaving Fergal as the only member of staff. Being a ‘one man band’ meant that he had to work in partnership with other organisations when delivering youth projects due to safeguarding reasons. Having to continually apply for funding on a project-to-project basis also meant that he couldn’t promise other future programmes to the kids as he didn’t want to give false expectations and then have to let them down.
“It was a challenge to keep the dream alive because I couldn’t promise them anything more. The capacity reduced over time as I couldn’t roll off the successes and say to them, ‘after this project we’ll do another’.”
Since 2017, Fergal has had to stop the Inside Out programme due to lack of funding. He tried to secure funding from The Lottery but was caught in what he calls a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. His proposed project involved a two-step process: the first step was to carry out research into what the local youth needed and wanted; the second step was to design a full programme of activities to fit their needs. However, he didn’t secure the initial funding due to a few reasons, one of which was not showing the ‘need’ in Claudy for these programmes. Fergal argued that this was one of the reasons behind his research — to show the ‘need’ for youth programmes (that he knew was there from his previous experience) through a structured evidence gathering exercise. To do this though, he needed funding; “as you can see, it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ situation.”
Due to other reasons around Fergal’s application to do with the specifics of his plan and a question around youth participation, he’s currently in an uncertain position and unsure about how the project will proceed.
So what does the future hold for Inside Out? Fergal is waiting to hear back on the outcome of a different application to fund a new local programme. Although this is only a small pot, he is hoping that it will support him enough to spend some time applying for more funding to help kick start the Inside Out Programme again and continue helping the rural youth in Claudy.