Many readers of the West Leeds Dispatch will know of BARCA, a voluntary organisation offering activities and services to those living in the area, writes Liz Jeffery.
Many local residents are regular visitors to New Wortley Community Centre, an independent community centre and just one of the buildings from which BARCA operates.
They come here partly to attend one or more of the wide variety of groups on offer: Zumba, guitar playing, a weekly walking group and including one run for those with physical and mental health issues, people who are isolated and depressed and living on benefits.
Some have been signposted to it by their GPs, others have heard about it by word of mouth. No-one is turned away if they need it. It is open to women and men and for five years or so it has been operating under this roof led by a trained and skilled counsellor.
Although what this group offers might at first sight appear low-key, its impact on those who attend is often profound.
Over time, people who have endured extraordinarily difficult experiences are able, with the reassurance that everything that happens within the group remains within the group, to open up and talk to other members about what they have been through.
In doing so, they discover inner strengths within themselves as well as providing support to each other. Far from being insignificant, attending this group can in fact prove inspirational and life-changing.
What follows hopefully gives a sense of these group sessions and just how much they mean to those who attend.
The extracts are the exact words of group members, all of whom have given their permission for this article to be published. However, their names have been changed to ensure anonymity.
Here, some of them share their early childhood experiences:
“Growing up, my life wasn’t very good. I was put into care when I was 10 months. People told me different stories about it so I wanted to find out and when I looked it was because I had two black eyes.
“I also found out I got raped by my dad, so my life wasn’t very nice. But my foster parents are just amazing. I lived there from ten months till I was 21 and I think of them as my real family. My dad didn’t just rape me, he raped four of us: me, my sister and two brothers. One of my brothers has now died.”
“When I was a child, I lived with my grandma most of the time. When I was at home it was very hectic and I preferred not to be there.
“Mum had lots of boyfriends and we had lots of dads. You’d get used to one and then you’d get another one. I had seven brothers and sisters and they all still live in Leeds. I didn’t enjoy school because I was bullied there. Even now, I still feel bullied so maybe I’m just a victim.
“I’m not very good at reading and writing and I find that very frustrating. I remember someone telling me I was stupid.
“I went to mainstream school and because I had special needs I found it very difficult. I didn’t always have my glasses and my eyes meet in the middle, so I was called Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion. I was cross and that took me even lower so I didn’t do any exams but was put into a school for badly behaved children. I left school at 15.”
One man’s experiences were so severe they led to unusual self-protective responses and a poignant description of where he found help and solace:
“The family started feeling resentment towards me because of the epilepsy so I got kicked out at the age of 12.
“I lived by myself in a hut in the cemetery and was working the streets. My step-dad stopped raping me because I dressed up in my sister’s clothes and he backed away from me and has never touched me since.
“I always felt safe like that and since being a teenager I’ve worked the gay clubs, in drag, done them all. Growing up I was a nasty piece of work. I was the sort of person you wouldn’t want to cross or get close to. After what my dad did to me I wouldn’t hesitate putting a bottle in somebody’s face.
“When I was growing up there was no-one I felt close to, only my horses. I could talk to them and they’d listen to me.
“There was a place, I’ll try and describe it. You come down into a sort of hollow, it’s shadowed and dark but totally covered in flowers. It’s my plot of land. And then, all of a sudden, you come up this hill and you just come into bright sunshine. There are silver birches, daffodils and crocuses – and I used to just sit there and try and work my head out.
“There were horses there – we had a few – and they gave me some comfort.”
The group leader establishes ground rules, such as confidentiality and respect, and these are adhered to by all those who attend, so that accounts of lives lived, experiences endured, are listened to and confidences shared, perhaps for the first time.
Possibly the main unifying experience for group members is the on-going experience of loneliness and isolation, something that for several members has, in the past, threatened to tip them over the edge.
The significance of them being able to share these feelings in a safe setting and to realise that they are not alone, can be profound. It also helps to know that they can support others:
“I started coming to the group about five years ago. The group was new then; I was one of the first. It worked out very well and gave me people to speak to because I was incredibly isolated. I still am.
“I haven’t mentioned my family and I have very little contact with them. The group was helpful. It gave me a bit of purpose. Everybody in it is dysfunctional. That’s why the group exists. I came to it for about three and a half years and I left because I moved house and it was too far and because I no longer needed it. But while I came to it, it allowed me to express myself and to talk about my problems. It gave me a bit of a function.”
“I can’t remember how long I’ve been coming to the centre but it was just before the group started. I was the first member and I’ve been coming every week since.
“It was mentioned to me because it’s a support group for people who feel they can’t cope any more. I’d felt suicidal at one point and that’s how I ended up coming.
“It’s been good for me because there’s people there I can talk to. Some of them are worse off than me and just knowing that can change your thinking. You get it into your head that you’re the worst off and nobody else could cope with what you have to but when you go to the group and hear about how other people grew up and what they’ve gone through, you realise you’re not alone, it’s not just you. And it’s important to feel you’re not alone.”
“I was one of the first to come to the group here about five years ago.
“I’m interested in knowing how older people feel about things so I like to just listen. People of all ages come to the group. It helps people who might be a bit lonely having something to do and making friends.
“I try to offer friendship even if I’m feeling down myself. It’s hard to know how to help people but I want to, but I’ve found out that I need to look after myself first. Sometimes I don’t have a good week and I have a lot of pain. But I’m doing OK.
“If I need help, I tell a lot of people in the group. I enjoy having someone to put me in the right direction, on the right path and there are people around who are doing that for me.”
“Before the group, I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go for support. I’d just go the doctor’s and he’d send me to different places.
“I could really say my mum’s the most important person in my life but there’s no-one really at the moment. It was my girlfriend (who he broke up with five years ago). My mother doesn’t really bother with me very often. She lets me just get on with my own life. We haven’t fallen out. We speak but not very often. I don’t get invited to Xmas dinner so I’m usually on my own.”
Most of the group members claim benefits and their negative experiences are typical of claimants elsewhere, with one member = Nigel – showing particular insight into the effects of poverty and living on benefits:
“Poverty isn’t about money. It’s about fear – of not being able to pay the rent, or buy food.
“And it’s about isolation because of not being able to get out. You are seen as an undesirable member of society. With the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), you’re guilty of fraud until you have proved otherwise. There’s no other part of society where this is true.
“As a benefits claimant, you are a sponger. It is automatically assumed that you have never contributed to society. A lot of people end up in poverty because of ill-health, mental breakdowns, injuries, industrial injuries and so on. You see another aspect of poverty is that you’re now disenfranchised from the legal system…because…there is no Legal Aid and you can’t fight because of this…”
All group members have suffered from low self-esteem, often related to a sense of purposelessness. Coming to the group and to the centre has opened up possibilities of contributing to society, of feeling validated and being valued. Bella says:
“The best thing in my life at the moment is doing the voluntary jobs because it’s getting me out of the flat. It’s stopped me from wishing my dad was still here and dwelling on negative thoughts. It’s given me a purpose for the day and let me meet new people and make friends. I’m now a confident positive person.”
“I realised I liked it here so I started being a volunteer. I did all sorts of things.
“I did reception, I worked in the shop, helped distribute leaflets, worked in the kitchen, helped with the luncheon club for old people, all sorts of stuff. I still do the luncheon club. And I won the ‘volunteer of the month’ award.
“I was asked to write a story about my life before being a volunteer and about being one and it went into the brochure of the centre. I felt really pleased about that.”
“I enjoy it here (at the Community Centre) because I volunteer four days a week and also volunteer with Adult Social Care two days a week, offering clients tea and coffee to make them feel more comfortable. I enjoy volunteering and it gets me out of the flat.
“I’ve got badges for it. My potential was noticed by the manager here after three months. I panicked when he said he wanted to see me and thought I’d done something wrong but it was OK.”
For most people in the group, family relationships are deeply significant, whether or not they are or have been positive and happy ones.
“My children are grown up and I’ve got four-and-a-half grandchildren – one’s on its way.
“My children are all still in Leeds or nearby. I see them quite regularly unless they’re busy with work.
“My daughter lived with me for the first year of her little girl’s life, because she was only 16 when she was born.
“My personal situation is complicated but the best thing in my life is my grand-daughter. I love my children but this grandchild was such a blessing, because she lived at home with me so I helped for the first year. I was the other parent. She called me ‘mum’ but I used to say, ‘No, ‘Grandma’.
“It felt very special and even now the bond I have with her is so different from with my other grandchildren. They all come and kiss me and love me but T. Says ‘Take me home with you, Gran. I love you’.”
“My children and grandchildren are the most important people in my life. I’ve brought two children up.
“One of my sons lives with me with his girlfriend, so I’m not always by myself. My other son and my two grandchildren live in Bradford. One of their fathers died, the other – I don’t know much about him. So I’ve been a single parent.”
The reality of existence for the kind of people who attend this group – and many others like them across the country – is often forgotten: by our government, by our institutions, perhaps by the majority of us most of the time.
What has contributed to them living on benefits, their childhood experiences, their health issues, is all too often discounted – and some of them, like those who attend this group, have suffered tremendously throughout their lives.
What they want and need is simple and shared by all of us: companionship, positive nurturing family relationships, a sense of purpose and simple respect as individuals.
Shockingly, their voices are far too rarely heard so they are denied the opportunity to contribute to and influence policies that affect them.
They are too often lumped together in an undifferentiated group, the forgotten ones in our society, the disadvantaged and, quite literally, the dispossessed.
Those who come to this group are not scroungers, happy to sit around doing nothing; nor are they looking out only for themselves. They are people who want to contribute to society, and given the chance, are only too happy to do so.
And the sort of help available to them in this community centre and particularly in this group can be life-changing and, quite literally, life-saving. As two of the group members described it:
“The group has been a help in a lot of aspects. You learn a bit more about things and it’s getting me away from the property and stopping me from thinking about ending it all. I’m not feeling quite as low.”
“I really, really like what the centre offers. It’s helpful and has helped me a lot. It’s changed the way I am. I used to have no confidence in myself but that’s changed through working here. I like being here and trying different things. And what’s changed me most isn’t just working here, it’s S’s group. That’s helped me a lot because I can speak and get things off my mind. If I feel angry I can just scream and get all my anger out.”
All the members of this group have lived through what can only be regarded as extremely challenging circumstances and events.
But what they have achieved is far more than just to survive their difficult starts in life – they have moved on in all sorts of positive ways: their confidence has increased, they no longer feel so bad about themselves and they are enjoying feeling part of a group and being able to help others.
So this account should be read not as a tale of woe but rather as a good news story.
For what’s on offer at this community centre and has proved to be of such benefit to these group members is comparatively simple, unremarkable.
Given a warm, welcoming atmosphere, access to easily affordable activities and food and especially to the group they attend with its opportunities to be heard and meet others in similar circumstances, these people have all developed their potential, exercised their agency and contributed to society in a wide variety of ways.
And, given what they have come through, that is indeed remarkable…