Five years ago I started a new job with Sandwell Libraries and Information Service. I was the Community Development Manager for the Big lottery Community Libraries Programme.
Two libraries, Smethwick and Bleakhouse were to be refurbished as part of the programme. My remit was to deliver the outcomes of the Community Engagement Plan. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? I don’t do boring, I do creative, I do fun. This was probably the most fun I have ever had at work. I think I may have been a bit of a shock to some people who worked there, and a breath of fresh air to others.
New community space and new ways of using the libraries, activities to bring the community together, engage with the wider community and improve health and well being. Work with staff to understand how community engagement could change libraries. All part of my remit.
And together we created libraries with vibrant spaces for new and fun things to happen.Vegetable shows, laughter yoga, pizza making, gaming, art groups and shared reading.
Julie Mckirdy, supervisor at Thimblemill Library, really understands how to make a library a creative, vibrant space. She works very closely with her community and constantly looks seeks for opportunities and innovative ways to bring new activities and people to the library. Bearwood Pantry, a local food co-operative use the community room once a week, and Utter Bearwood, in partnership with Black Country Touring celebrate the spoken word with a series of storytelling events.
Yet, while the veggie shows and yoga were fun, my proudest achievement, and what I want to be remembered for was being part of the team that brought shared reading to Sandwell.
I came across the idea of shared reading groups after reading an article about a project led by The Reader Organisation. As soon as I read about it I knew that I had to find a way of weaving this into delivering some of the outcomes of my project. I wasn’t really sure how it would fit in, yet I had a gut instinct that I needed to do this. I always listen to my gut!
A meeting with a fantastic woman from Sandwell PCT, who was already delivering a series of activities in libraries to improve mental health and well-being in libraries further convinced me that this was something I had to make happen. She had read about the impact that shared reading had on people and had been looking for a way to introduce it to her portfolio And then I came along and she found the way to do it. Professionally and personally we clicked, she agreed to fund a ten week pilot and in Autumn 2009 Make Friends with a Book, Sandwell, was launched at Smethwick Library.
The ten week pilot got extended for a year and then a second group was commissioned by the PCT. The impact on people who came to the groups was transformational. Five years on from my first meeting with her there are now five Make Friends with a Book groups in Sandwell Libraries. One other group is in a care home, specifically for those suffering with dementia.
But the future of all these groups is under threat. This is because they all rely on funding to continue.
The groups at Bleakhouse and Smethwick will have to stop in March 2014.
Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) commission most of the hospital and community NHS services in the local areas for which they are responsible.
Following the reorganisation from PCTs to CCGs, the responsibility for promoting public mental health has been passed to local authorities. Local authorities who are experiencing substantial cuts in their overall funding.
Interventions have to be evaluated, graphs have to be drawn, numbers need to be crunched. Evaluated. And services cut.
And that makes me sad. I know that funding is tight, I know that tough decisions have to be made, but how do you explain this to people in the groups? That the NHS would rather prescribe you happy pills than fund an activity that gets you out of the house meeting new people. Take away the weekly session reading poetry to people with dementia, and offer them bingo instead? How do you explain that the woman who reads to you isn’t coming any more, even though you asked her to read Daffodils by Wordsworth, a poem you remember reading at school?
How do you explain that the groups will stop to people who before coming to the groups would normally spend Monday morning alone watching day time telly and Thursday morning with Jeremy Kyle?
The groups have enjoyed theatre visits at the RSC and Birmingham Rep, watched films together, read Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Elliot. And having come to the library for one group, Make Friends with a Book, they subsequently have become actively involved in other activities in their library, including volunteering to look after the garden, creative writing, IT and painting and drawing.
Looking at the data, Sandwell is not doing very well to ensure people live longer lives. Of cause a lot to do with this is that there are pockets (big ones) of high deprivation. And yes money needs to be spent on working with people at risk of life threatening and preventable illness.
I am not saying that shared reading cures cancer or helps people to stop smoking. I do know that it makes people feel better. Just read these testimonials to see how shared reading makes a difference.
Good health is more than having a heathy body. Shared reading improves mental health and well being. I see evidence of this every time I go to a group. I don’t need statistics or produce pretty graphs to know this. If you came to a group you would see the difference it makes to people’s lives.
Good mental health can lead to improved physical well being. Just by getting out of bed, and dressed and getting on a bus to the library once a week can make a big difference to a person who otherwise would see no one all day. To someone like Gordon or Edith or Sylvia who I wrote about in All the Lonely People.
It makes a difference to the person who lives alone, to carers, to the bereaved. To those suffering a terminal illness.
It makes a difference to someone who has been made redundant, to someone who is job seeking.
It makes a difference to someone who likes listening to other people read, to someone who has loved literature all their life. And to someone who has never read a novel before.
It makes a difference to someone like me who is still grieving after losing someone close to them. To someone who is sometimes so sad that she cannot get out of her bed or remember to eat. Make Friends with a Book is my time to nurture and look after me. And to meet up with people who knew and loved my mom.
It made a difference to my mother, who had been diagnosed with an incurable disease, with a unknown life expectancy. A woman for whom getting out and seeing the world, meeting people and reading were her main pleasures. Those and a mixed grill.
Mom had lost her appetite, her sight and her mobility. Yet at Make Friends with a Book, Sylvia, a former actress, had a new audience. She met new people who were interested in her life on stage and the stars she had met. She had another fifteen minutes of fame.
When I sat in that PCT office five years ago, making the case for funding this project; talking about the impact it would have; who the beneficiaries would be; how it would achieve shared outcomes; all the things you have to do when justifying funding a project, I didn’t know that two of the ‘beneficiaries’ would be me and my mom.
And it was her new audience, who were there at her funeral, dressed up in bright colours. They made the last few months of her life a bit more bearable. And she would never had met them if it wasn’t for Make Friends with a Book.
Now, go evaluate that.