The target is simple: ‘We want to lift people out of really dark places’

Isolated. Cut-off. Islands. These are just a few of the 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 cases, 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, benefit sanctions or living on a low income can contribute to a perception of being cast adrift from others.

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 long-standing 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 facilitates 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 neighborhoods 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 take them.”

In North West Kilmarnock, one of 10 communities across Scotland where Link Up operates, I meet 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 group that encourages women who might not ordinarily see themselves as part of a community 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 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 it to be cathartic to be part of the company and their shared concerns: “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 a group called 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 says: “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 fun days and trips, many of which involve other local women.

Rose, who helps organise many of these events, 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.”

Later, 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 can 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 Kilmarnock North West 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 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, y’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 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 co-operative. Also, as Lynn points out, it’s easier to open up within am informal group where there is no implied pressure to discuss your problems, as there may be at other more targeted meetings.

Neill, Lynn and Doug all point to the example of a girl called Julie who, Lynn says, was “in a terrible state when I first took her there, literally shaking” and who’d spent nearly five years in the house. She desperately wanted to leave after 10 minutes at The Waffle but Lynn convinced her to stay and “stick it out”. Today Julie and Lynn regularly cook for the group and also serve meals at Creighton Court, a local sheltered and amenity housing development.

Doug says of Julie’s transformation: “She’s come a long way. She was doing a presentation the other week in front of 50-60 people. From coming and not wanting to talk to anybody to doing that big presentation is quite a difference.”

The largest and final Link Up collaboration that Neill wants me to see 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 says, “attract 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 outreach group.”

Archer James, referred by his community connector, based within his GP practice, says 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 McIntosh and Vicki Butcher 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 says: “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 re-invent 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.”

For more information about Inspiring Scotland, go here

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