Grace Community Church: Working together to build a vibrant new community space for local people in Pensnett

Grace Community Church, based in Pensnett, is a passionate congregation of people, committed to making their local area a better place to live by responding to the changing needs of the community around them. As a community, they have pulled together using their individual skills and connections to build a vibrant new community space that will become a place where local people can come together, learn new things, and get support.

I recently visited Nigel Rowe, Pastor at Grace Community Church, at their new community building to find out more about their recent asset transfer success and future plans for the building and the local community.

It was in early 2018 when Nigel approached Dudley CVS looking for a community space in the Pensnett area to use as a base for their group’s activities. After an initial discussion about potential buildings they could rent in the area, Becky, Dudley CVS Small Groups Officer, suggested community asset transfer as an option to consider and pointed in the direction of Dudley Council to find out more about potential buildings available in the area.

After a short period of looking around, Nigel found a local building that wasn’t being fully utilized. It had previously been used for a senior citizens club, which only met once or twice a week for bingo. The space had the potential to offer lots more. After expressing an interest in the building, they put together a business plan and worked with Dudley Council to start the asset transfer process. They received the keys in October last year.

Community asset transfer involves the transfer of responsibility for buildings or land from the local authority to a voluntary or community organisation. It presents opportunities to ensure that facilities can continue to be available locally for social, community and public use. The process starts with an expression of interest, followed by a business plan to show community support for the transfer, the kinds of activities that would take place in the building that would benefit the community, and financial sustainability.

Although they found the asset transfer a lengthy process, it gave them some extra time to raise the funds to renovate the building. Roughly £25,000 has been spent on the renovations so far. The Ibstock Enovert Trust, an environmental body that supports community and environmental projects, awarded £15,000 for the project, and the church’s congregation worked hard to raise the rest of the money.

When I visited Nigel at the building, I was amazed to find wonderfully welcoming, bright and spacious rooms, beautifully decorated with modern fixtures and fittings, a vast improvement from the old photos I’d seen of the building. Although not entirely finished, it’s very nearly there, even as I arrived there was somebody busily painting away!

Nigel told me about the incredible support from the local community, how everybody pulled together to make this project happen, not only the congregation but also local businesses that had donated fittings, materials and equipment.

Tiles were donated by a local business doing a renovation job in the area. Electricians, Sunny Electrical, and local plumbing company Gill Mechanical Service offered their skills at a reduced rate. Will Hire from Lye hired out scaffolding and core drills free of charge. Howdens donated a fitted kitchen after hearing about their various food-related projects for local people, including hampers during the winter, and ‘Make Lunch’, providing free school meals to young people and children during the school holidays.

It’s unbelievable to see old photos of how the building looked before the renovation work began:

And today, the incredible transformation – a bright and modern space!

And, the congregation are not just a vibrant and friendly bunch, they themselves are also very ‘handy’ with skills in decorating, painting, plastering and building work. Locally, Grace Community Church has taken on gardening and DIY projects for elderly people that can’t get out of the house, or for people that might be struggling for other reasons. Nigel told me, “It’s surprising how much you need for a renovation project like this that you don’t realise. We’re already using a lot of these skills out in the community, and we’re now using them to complete this project so that we can bring the community in. Local people and businesses just wanted to help because they had heard about all the good things we were planning to do with the space.”

All Nations Church Wolverhampton, their parent church, has also helped and supported the work in the area.

The building is now equipped with everything that is needed for a fully functioning community space. It has a large bright main room for events, a brand new modern kitchen space, toilet facilities and a day/activities room for toddler groups.

The vision for what takes place in the building has been built around what they have learnt from the changing needs of the community around them. They will start with a toddler group to support isolated parents in the area, as since the closure of the local children’s centre there hasn’t been a great provision for parents. Their aim is to ensure that people can drop in at any time, and there will always be someone available in the building to support parents. Nigel added, “It will be a place where answers can be found. We don’t have all the answers, but we can work together to find them”. The Toddler Group meets every Tuesday morning from 9:30am until 11am.

Nigel is also a Chaplain at Crestwood School, offering extra support for young people during lunchtime. This helps them to understand the needs of young people in the area.

The space will be used to run activities with young families, to start youth groups, art clubs, coffee mornings, and in the future, they hope to put on parenting classes, and workshops to support people with managing their finances. There will be summer school meals in the new kitchen and big events during the summer and Christmas time. Currently, they run a music workshop on a Wednesday evening and are looking to expand. People of all ages are welcome to come and use the equipment. They also plan to link up with the local food bank and potentially use the building as a distribution point.

Their aim is to build up better relationships with local people through running groups, classes and events. It’s also about connecting people socially by offering a safe place to meet to get to know other people, with a hope that new friendship groups will blossom.

Nigel tells me, “Isolation affects people of all ages. There is nowhere local to just sit down and have a coffee. We want to have drop-ins so that people can come in and have a friendly face to share a hot drink and a cake with.” Exciting future plans include potentially opening a coffee shop in the building to provide people with a place to meet and do things, also giving local people job opportunities.

Grace Community Church is now focused on getting over the starting line so they can bring exciting new projects and activities to the community. It’s wonderful to see such a transformation, providing the Pensnett community with a place to be for many years to come. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Grace Toddler Group meets every Tuesday morning from 9:30am until 11am. There is also a meeting every Sunday morning from 10:30am for an open and friendly church service with children’s activities and refreshments at the end. All are welcome.

If you would like to find out more about the project contact gracechurch@allnations.org.uk

 

Setting up for success: Wall Heath Ladies Choir

Over the last few months I’ve been working with the lovely Lorraine, a music enthusiast who wanted to explore the idea of setting up a new ladies choir. I recently visited the choir and spoke to the ladies now taking part in its activities to see how far they’ve come in such a short space of time, a testament to the work Lorraine and her team have put in to get this off the ground!

Setting up a group of any kind takes time and plenty of groundwork to move from being one person’s idea to a collective that a whole team is behind. Much of the requests for support that I receive focus on getting paperwork in place, like constitutions, and funding. I can understand this impulse – having a constitution (with certain key clauses) makes a group eligible for funding and constitutions aren’t something people come across every day – apart from me, I suppose!

But a constitution isn’t a group’s starting point and diving straight into writing one misses crucial steps in the process of setting up a group: team building and planning.

Team building and planning

A not-for-profit group of any kind is always a collective. Although one person might start with their vision and be the driving force, a group should never be run by just one person. A successful group needs a strong, diverse team with a range of skills to be able to make good decisions, reflect society and benefit the people it is set up to help. For me, this is one of the hardest and most crucial aspects of setting up (and continuing to run) a group; building a team will help to ensure that goals are set collectively and that there’s greater motivation to achieve them.

Which leads us to planning. Planning is a really important step in establishing a group and in keeping a group going. The planning process helps everyone involved in the group to agree exactly what the group is about, what it’s trying to achieve and the activities it will do to meet its objectives. Doing it as a team will unite team members behind collectively agreed goals and it will bring lots of different skills and viewpoints to the process, making a plan robust. Planning is also about connecting with others, considering what’s already happening in the community, identifying gaps and linking with other people and organisations to show how the group will operate and demonstrate the level of interest in its work.

Lorraine and her team did this really well, linking with the many community groups in Wall Heath in order to build a picture of potential members, to get word out about the new choir and to secure a venue. This process also helped Lorraine to think about and demonstrate the potential value of the choir and how singing together has social benefits and supports good wellbeing and mental health.

The benefits of planning and connecting with others helped Lorraine to feel more confident about applying for small grants to launch the choir. I helped to identify some small funders who might be interested in supporting the choir, particularly as a way to help people become more connected in their community and feel less isolated. Soon, Lorraine had secured grants totaling just over £3,000 from Blakemore Foundation, Geoff Hill Charitable Trust, Helping Hands Wall Heath CIC and the local Community Forum!

It was great to hear that Wall Heath Ladies Choir could start its activities thanks to the small grants it received which helped to cover venue hire, materials and small items of equipment. It was even better to pay a visit to one of the rehearsals to see how members were getting on!

That night I met a dozen or so smiling women, beginning the night with a catch up, asking about each other and chatting before throwing themselves into warm-up exercises and then into a rousing rehearsal that I couldn’t help but join in with (sorry!). The choir is led by the energising and encouraging Karen, a vocal coach, who has whipped the ladies into shape in no time. Karen’s approach is brilliant and engaging; she helps people feel comfortable and confident, and she knows how important it is to involve everyone in deciding on what songs they should perform. She brings warmth and humour to the group and it’s obvious that she’s built a wonderful rapport with the members of the choir.

During the break, I got to chat with some of the ladies. I found out that all but one of them hadn’t sung in a choir before, but that they didn’t feel stressed or daunted by being in the choir. One member remarked that she liked that they don’t get told off if they get it wrong, which shows how welcoming the choir is to all sorts of abilities. 

Some of the members knew each other before they joined Wall Health Ladies Choir, though all of them said that they’d made new friends by joining.  I was also told that coming to the choir is good fun, a pick me up after a difficult day and a place where you can forget your stresses. One member told me that she hadn’t seen anyone else that day until she came to the choir. It seems pretty clear that the choir is about more than singing, it’s about the fellowship, friendship and sense of belonging that can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.

So if you’re interested in joining a fun, friendly and relaxed choir, why not go along to a rehearsal and see for yourself? Wall Heath Ladies Choir rehearses on Thursday evenings, 7.15pm-9.15pm at Church of Ascension, Wall Heath. You’ll get a warm welcome!

I’ll leave you with a cheeky video I took of the choir rehearsing ABBA’s Dancing Queen and I challenge you not to smile!

 

 

Building friendships for people with dementia and their carers in Brierley Hill

Meet Paul and Alison. They’re the team behind the lovely Alzheimer’s and Friendship Group that meets at the Storehouse in Brierley Hill on most Monday evenings. It’s a place where people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia and their carers can come to meet others, share mutual support and make friends.

I visited them recently to learn more about them and what the group means to the people that attend.

As soon as I got to the door, I was greeted by Paul, who welcomed me into the Storehouse coffee shop which was laid out nicely so that everyone could see and talk to each other, or talk in smaller groups if they wanted to. I introduced myself to everyone and soon people started telling me their own stories about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, which I think was a sign of how comfortable they felt in their surroundings.

Paul and Alison clearly have time for everyone who walks through the door, helping them to feel welcome, wanted and comfortable. This is something that they’ve been doing for the past nine years; I was bowled over to learn that the group had been going for that long, just over the road from my office!

Back in 2009, Paul, who has a background of working with people with dementia, met someone who couldn’t go out because of their caring role. In response to this, he and Alison, who worked with older people, thought about providing respite, a space for people with dementia while their carers got some time to themselves. They spoke to Albion Street Church, who agreed to let Paul and Alison use some space, first in the church itself and then in the Storehouse when it was refurbished. The Church also holds a small budget for the group which they can dip into for things like refreshments and entertainment, though they rarely use it and make sure it goes a long way!

Over the years, the group has been flexible to the wishes of its participants. While some carers have brought their loved ones and taken advantage of the respite offered, other carers have stayed with their loved ones and participated in the activities. At the moment, the regular participants are all former carers, who continue to attend for the companionship they have gained over the years; none of the participants knew each other before they started attending the group. Some come from as far as Sedgley because of their shared experiences of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. As we all shared our emotional experiences of loving and losing someone with Alzheimer’s, it did feel good to take some solace from people who had experienced it too. I can completely see how the Alzheimer’s and Friendship Groups helps people to feel less isolated.

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On the evening of my visit, we were treated to some entertainment from Rachel a talented  musician, who played a range of pieces on saxophone. As a music obsessive myself, this was a peaceful treat and I think everyone enjoyed it! In fact, Alzheimer’s Society says that

evidence suggests that the brain processes music differently to other functions, allowing people with dementia to enjoy songs and music long after other abilities are challenged.

Rachel is connected to the Church herself and she gave her time and skills freely to entertain us for a couple of hours on a Monday night. This group really is a great example of how great things can happen with the right ingredients: people with a passion; a friendly venue and a supportive organisation behind them; good connections which can be mobilised for very little outlay. This is why I hadn’t heard of the group before: they have everything they need to succeed!

Of course, this group is open to new members, whether they’re carers, cared-for, or both. So if you’re interested in making new friends in a supportive environment, the Alzheimer’s a Friendship Group meets on Monday evenings February-December (except bank holidays), 6pm onwards.

It’s wonderful that the Alzheimer’s and Friendship Group exists. According to figures from Alzheimer’s Society:

  • 225,000 people will develop dementia this year – one every three minutes
  • There are 670,000 carers of people with dementia in the UK
  • In 2015, an estimated 850,000 people were living with dementia

So there’s room for groups like this and others to create supportive environments for carers and their loved ones. In fact, in Coseley residents have been coming together to develop a Dementia Friendly Cinema to help people with dementia to stay connected in their community. Using a wonderful guide from Alzheimer’s Society to make small adaptations to help people with dementia feel safe and supported, they’ve had one screening and are planning another soon. The next screening will be Some Like It Hot on Tuesday 16 October, at 2pm. To register for this, please visit the Coseley Community Cinema page.

If you’d like to get more involved with either the Alzheimer’s and Friendship Group or the Coseley Dementia Cinema, then please feel free to get in touch and I’ll link you with them.

Share how you’re connecting older people in your community

team-spirit-2447163_1920Dudley CVS is involved in a small piece of work with Age UK Dudley to help older people make connections in their communities that can combat loneliness, boost health and help people to be more resilient.

We’d like to shout about the great work that is already happening at a small scale, local level in community groups across Dudley borough, celebrate what they’re doing and learn about how we can support more of this type of activity.

If your group is helping older people to stay connected, or you’d like to get started, tell us:

  • What types of activities you do together, if you’re already doing things as a group
  • What more you would like to do – and what’s making it difficult to do more of what you’d like to do
  • What would help you to do continue or extend your activities

For inspiration, you might like to read about what Netherton Regeneration Group is doing to build kindness and social connectedness in their community.

If you get in touch, Helena and I will pay you a visit to help you to shout about the great things you’re up to and to offer you further support. So please, feel free to contact us using the comments section below, emailing smallgroups@dudleycvs.org.uk or calling Becky on 01384 573381.