Reunion for refugee families

When Almaz Berhanu Yesbasa fled Ethiopia for political reasons, leaving behind her husband and four daughters, two years passed before she saw her family again. She was granted refugee status in the UK but did not know where her daughters were until the British Red Cross traced them, supported Almaz with Home Office visa applications and brought about the family’s reunion in 2006. Read more about a new charity, the Refugee Welcome Trust, which helps to reunite refugees separated from loved ones, in my Society Guardian article.

American idols: London’s US-style civic army

City Year volunteer Alex Scott
City Year volunteer Alex Scott

Alex Scott, a 20-year-old psychology undergraduate at Surrey University, is spending a year with youth volunteering programme City Year London. The project, launched in September, involves 18-25-year-olds spending time in London primary schools, mentoring and supporting those younger than themselves. It is based on a successful American model of civic duty that began in 1988.

I’m sure everyone is weary of hearing how they can make a difference. We may tire of saying that you’ve changed the world by holding the door open for the person behind you or by bundling loose change into the upturned hat of a homeless person. True, being generally polite and selfless to one another is an honourable feat, but I’m writing about an organisation that requires a little, no, a lot more, commitment.

I’m a team leader for an organisation called City Year, which has emigrated from the USA after establishing itself in 20 other locations before reaching London, England, and it aims to have the same success that it has achieved across the Atlantic.

This year, City Year London has called together a diverse team of over 60 young people to volunteer a year of service with the agenda of making a real difference to the communities it reaches.

Primary schools in Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets were signed up to receive a group of 18–25 year old full-time volunteers in their school to act as role models and mentors in the key stage two (seven to 11 year olds) classes. As Team Leader for the Towerbrook team based in Sebright Primary School in Hackney, I lead a group of nine volunteers who are there from when the first child arrives in the morning, to when the last child leaves when school ends. The team take part in after school clubs, breakfast clubs, spend time in the playground and lunch hall every day and are a constant presence in the classrooms; often targeting children that teachers identify as needing extra support that may have not always been able to receive.

But as amazing as this may sound, the volunteers that City Year accepts through a strict interviewing process aren’t superheroes, no matter how they may look in their uniform red jackets and Timberland boots. Full time volunteering isn’t easy; and City Year asks a lot of its ‘corps members’. Expenses are offered for up to £100 per week and there is the opportunity to receive a Citizens Service Award of up to £1000 upon graduating the year of service, but that £100 can only get you so far and the early starts and late finishes definitely adds a few premature wrinkles. So why do it?

I heard about City Year through an advertisement on a placement website, having searched for year long placements in London with the aim of taking a year out of my University studies to work in a professional setting. I was offered the role of Team Leader, and although I approached it with trepidation, I have been able to see the developments that my team have made first hand. Sebright Primary School has welcomed us with patient and trusting arms, allowing us to take real responsibility over our effect in the school.

First thing in the morning, the volunteers run exercise routines known as physical training with the children in an attempt to combat lateness. During the school day, each volunteer has been assigned the task of daily supported reading for Key Stage One children, and a select few have the responsibility of improving the phonic skills of students who require that extra bit of guidance so that they don’t get left behind. The volunteers have taken on the task of an after school club as well, a sort of ‘citizenship’ session where the children who attend are taught skills and acquire knowledge that will help them both in and outside the school setting.

What has impressed me the most, however, is how well integrated the volunteers now are with the children at the school. It doesn’t seem to matter how early they have to wake up or how late they get to leave, each volunteer will always have a swarm of children around them at playtimes, and will never be too tired to join them in a game or listen to their stories for the week. I will only be in my position as team leader for a year, then I will return to university, but I have high expectations for all that City Year hopes to achieve based on how my team have performed thus far.

My time so far with City Year has made me a more confident and self assured person, but more importantly, it has taken a chip from my cynicism and shown me that through spirit, discipline, purpose and pride, anyone can hope to make a difference to the world around them.

Women, know your politics

Uncovered from The Original Ranch on Vimeo.

Above, ‘Uncovered’, a short animated film inspired by women’s attitudes to community, participation and politics.

The best ideas are, usually, the most simple ones. That’s one reason I’m a fan of a new project called Politics Uncovered, a community-based attempt to demystify politics for women.

Working on the premise that a) women are still woefully underrepresented in politics and b) very few people know even the basics of democracy and government, social enterprise arts organisation The Original Ranch has produced an event that is something of a beginners guide to politics.

The Original Ranch recorded women’s views about community, participation and politics during several discussion groups last year. It used the material to create a short animated film (above) which, along with a basic lesson in the workings of government, constitutes the event Politics Uncovered. The lesson explains the key structures at national and local levels, describes the main players and their roles, and gives participants an opportunity to ask questions.

The first Politics Uncovered event at the end of November involved around 30 women from London, all political novices who wanted to find out more about government issues.

According to Olivia Bellas, founder of The Original Ranch, what makes the project unique is that it is a free and accessible ‘lesson’ in politics, presented in a non-politicised environment (the launch event was at the Women’s Library in east London and offered a crèche facility) and it offers interactive and creative approaches to learning.

Put simply, if you want a beginners guide to politics, delivered in an informative but interesting way, look no further.

“Politics can be quite difficult to grasp; there are many different players, institutions, mechanisms, and formalities,” says Bellas, “and so it is hardly surprising that many people may not fully understand it”.

Although there is as yet no formal evaluation, Bellas says that anecdotal evidence from participants reveals
an increased knowledge of and interest in politics and a feeling of empowerment.

The quirky template used in Politics Uncovered could be used to raise awareness of all sorts of social issues in communities, in a visually appealing way that participants find neither too intimidating nor too condescending. I’m interested to see how the project evolves in 2011.

Autism lifelines at risk of unravelling

It is Saturday morning and 13-year-old James Hope is desperate to get to his activity club. His dad, Jim, reaches for his coat, but James is frustrated at having to wait. He stomps off to the car and waits silently, brows furrowed.

This scene takes place most Saturdays but rather than tiring of what other parents might regard as a mild teenage strop, Jim and his wife, Alison, celebrate it. James has autism and they are grateful that their son not only has a regular weekend activity but that he is keen to get to it.

But the kind of lifeline the Hope family relies on is under threat thanks to funding cuts. Click here to read my Society Guardian piece on how progress on autism is at risk.

Are we losing the care in our communities?

Bill Mumford, chairman, Voluntary Organisations Disability Group
When the revolution of care in the community took place, the decision to close long stay institutions resulted in a new, big idea; normal lifestyles, in normal houses, in normal streets.

People found themselves discharged from hospitals into small group homes in virtually every town in the UK. These were shared houses registered as care homes operating effectively as shared supported housing in the days before the supported living drive but without the important security of a tenancy. For many it felt like not only a new life, but a better one.

But now, just as people are looking forward to enjoying this life, due to bureaucratic, regulatory and financial reasons, people are trapped in unwanted small registered care homes. These homes are now closing because of running costs or the need to meet national minimum standards and changes in commissioning practice which prefer supported housing over ‘care homes’.

The problem is these closures are not happening in a strategic or orderly way, so the people living there face the prospect of another move into the unknown.

Take John, for example. He has a complex disability and moved from a long stay institution in 1986 to live in the community. His funding came from the council (let’s call it council A) where his parents lived although his new home was based in a different local authority area (council B).

In 1990 John moved to a smaller house, still registered as a care home (as it was before the supported living options became available), but less rural and with more to do in the community. The new house was still based in council B’s area and the funding arrangements continued.

Over the last 15 years John and his housemates have enjoyed a settled and fairly contented life building up their local support networks. Recently, two of the other people living there have moved on, leaving behind John and a fellow housemate, Mary (she is funded by council C).

The problem is that the charity that runs the home cannot find new people to move in to fill the vacancies – it has continued to run the service at a loss for the past two years.

The inability to find people to join John and Mary has been largely due to the understandable reluctance of authorities to make referrals to registered care placements.

As a solution, the charity could de-register the accommodation so it is no longer classed as a care home, but if it does so, it will come up against two bureaucratic barriers. Firstly, local government ‘ordinary residence’ rules mean council B would have to take on the support costs for John and Mary (while councils A and C would relinquish all funding). Secondly, council B is reluctant to open up its procurement arrangements to recognise the charity as a preferred contractor so will not place people there under contract for supported living!

Unknown to John and Mary, the home is likely to close and they will be faced with a move back to authorities A and C, a part of the country they haven’t lived in for over 20 years where not many family members remain. The costs to authorities A and C are very likely to increase while authority B will lose a good resource that could meet local needs.

The Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) researched the issues affecting people with disabilities because of the Ordinary Residence rules in 1997.

Our 2007 report titled No Place Like Home recommended three actions: firstly to agree the principle of a person-centred approach to funding and placement, secondly for the government to issue guidance and thirdly to put in place a framework for funding to transfer between authorities.

In October the VODG published Not in My Backyard as a follow up and found that despite the fact that new guidance had been issued there was little evidence of good practice. VODG demands the government include the concept of portability of social care entitlement in the white paper on social care due to be published next year.

We must do right by people like John and Mary; they represent a particularly wronged generation of people. Regardless of promises for future reform we need a kind of national amnesty, one that ensures funding is in the right place, providers and commissioners are working in partnership and individuals are given a proper voice. Because putting people first is not just a one off action, it is an enduring commitment.

Young people and a load of bull

Kayla Whiting lives in Hackney, a former administrator for media social enterprise Poached Creative, she project managed the short community film Life’s A Bitch which got local young people involved in media and raised awareness about Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Here, she explains how and why she did it.

Young filmmaker Kayla Whiting and her staffies

I did the film because … I wanted to defend the breed of dog and get people in the community to think before they stereotyped the dog and also give the young people an opportunity to learn valuable media skills.

My aim was…to produce a piece of footage that would change people perception on Staffordshire Bull Terriers.

The hardest thing was…keeping the young people engaged with the project and taking responsibility of all the paper work.

The most rewarding thing was…knowing all the young people enjoyed the experience and learnt new skills; which helped them back into training.

I funded it by…applying for funding from funding body Mediabox with the help of Poached Creative and youth-led media group Mediorite.

My tips for others wanting to do the same are…to keep the work as practical as possible. Make sure you create a strong bond with your team.

The biggest problem for communities today is…young people not being able to get jobs and progress in fields they would like.

If I could have a word in David Cameron’s ear I’d… tell him to make politics more understandable and engaging.

My inspiration is… being a young person myself. Being able to help other young people and help them to work towards their dreams as I am.

In 10 years time I want to be…a millionaire!

How Roma integration could be child’s play

It is a simple act that speaks volumes about the barriers that have been broken; a young Roma boy hands a flower to the play worker he had been so challenging towards just two weeks ago.

The scene took place in August at a groundbreaking playscheme run by social enterprise the Big Life group which encouraged Roma children aged 7-11 to mix with their local Manchester counterparts.

As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the 12m-strong Roma population might be dispersed across the EU, but it is unified in the discrimination routinely faced by its people. From being moved on from traveller sites to outright repatriation, Roma families live in poverty and are reluctant to contact statuary services fear being moved on or suffer harassment.

Negative perceptions of the Roma community in Manchester along with an increase in the number of Roma people wanting to sell The Big Issue in the North led to the launch of the Big Life group summer play scheme (Big Life owns the Big Issue in the North). Open to all children living in the Longsight area of Manchester, it aimed to break down barriers between the communities and reduce the perceived or actual nuisance behaviour over the summer.

The scheme was publicised through leaflets given out during the social enterprise’s family support sessions and through local children’s centres. Word of mouth also encouraged Roma children to access the project.

Children doing al fresco craft activiites at the Big Life group summer scheme

The scheme, jointly funded by Manchester city council and The Big Issue in the North Trust, did not charge participants and 60 children registered across the month-long scheme with a total of 30 per session. Take up was even; 52 % Roma registrations and 48% from other communities.

Project leader Daniel Achim recalls that the scheme got off to a shaky start: “At the beginning all children seemed to be rather slow to action the requests of the play workers. The children were testing the boundaries and the workers had to repeat the same information over and over again in order to get a result.”

Yet, as Achim says, by the end of the playscheme there was a major transformation in the behaviour of the children in terms of respect and politeness to staff. “In a safe and welcoming environment where they were not discriminated against children learned to relax around each other, they learned to share play equipment, they learned to wait their turn.”

Children at the Big Life group scheme in August

While entrenched attitudes towards those who are different can be hard to shatter, the Big Life playscheme shows how to break down barriers through play. Any mutual suspicion was soon overcome. Encouraging integration through play and from an early age is starting to reap rewards.

As Achim says, often the tensions tended to be between children from the same backgrounds: “Sometimes it is easy to see differences between communities – when really it is just kids being kids.”

How to go off the scale on the Tory happy-ometer

When, where, why and how much were you last really happy? It’s important, because the government plans to spend £2m on measuring our happiness.

For me, it was 2pm last Saturday in a checkout queue in Sainsbury’s, Ringwood, Hampshire. The standout moment of happiness was thanks to my youngest sister, who has Fragile X syndrome, and the charity Camphill. As for how happy I was (forgive the veering into Tom Cruise-esque sofa-jumping territory), it was a pure, punch-the-air-feelgood that catapulted my stomach upwards and made me want to hug my fellow shoppers.

While I avoid supermarkets on Saturdays – they are the next rung down on the ladder of hell from a weekend family trip to Ikea – I would join that checkout queue every week if it made me as happy as I was a few days ago.

So, happiness policy wonks, here’s one way to spread the love.

It’s Saturday and I’m visiting my 21-year-old sister, Raana, at the Camphill Lantern Community in Ringwood which she moved to in September from a Camphill college in Wadhurst, East Sussex. The Lantern is an adult community for the learning disabled which aims to foster greater independence in those who live and work there. Supported by staff and volunteers, Raana enjoys life in a shared house, is proud of her work in the shop and of her new skills in the bakery, has joined a local gym and is planning her Christmas shopping in Bournemouth.

Saturday is her shopping day so we’re at the supermarket. I’m impressed that my crowd-hating sister ducks and dives through bodies and baskets like a retail pro while I’m all at sea in an unfamiliar store. My sister’s enthusiasm and confidence hint at what is to follow…

We queue and, as her shopping is scanned, I remember she needs to top up her phone card and buy stamps. From ordering in restaurants to buying train tickets, communication with strangers has always been tricky so, like the rest of my family, I’ve become used to speaking up for her. We usually encourage her to make a stab at speaking for herself but, with the queue snaking behind us, for practical as well as historical reasons, I launch into support-mode autopilot: “And can we have…”

But suddenly my sister pierces the air with: “Can I have some stamps please?’ and I’m left gawping while an unprecedented exchange takes place:

Checkout girl: “Of course – what sort?”
Me (eyes wide as you’d like the checkout aisle to be): “…….!”
My sister: “Book of 12, first class please.”
Checkout girl: “Anything else?”
Me: “RAANA!?”
My sister (nonchalant, in control, ignoring my beaming face): “Yes, a top up on my phone card please.”
Checkout girl: “That’s it?”
My sister: “Yes, I’m paying on a card.”
Me: (grinning, restraining a high five, elbowing Tom off Oprah’s sofa): “RAANA! YOU’VE DONE YOUR OWN SHOPPING!”
Checkout girl and my sister look at me. I feel silly, but very happy.

My sister was clear, confident, polite and – and here’s the thing – her behaviour would have appeared to most people to be entirely unremarkable. She fitted in.

It’s the little things in life that matter – running errands might not be your idea of achievement, but for my sister, making a shopping list or paying for something herself reflects her growing independence. She is benefitting from the holistic approach to social care and education that she has enjoyed since the age of 16, when we first came across the Camphill movement.

Me with Raana at a Camphill event earlier this year

“You’ve not replied to emails this week,” I say later. “I’m very busy!” she replies, indignantly. Raana is sometimes too busy working, learning and socialising to contact us – this is a sign of independence and security because when stressed, she bombards us with texts (my sister is phone-phobic, but I hope one day to have a telephone conversation with her). For the first time, she shares some common ground with her mainstream peers – the “too busy to phone home” line is not dissimilar to the one I’ve peddled since I was her age.

But the spending squeeze threatens to undermine the support provided by organisations like Camphill because the councils which fund those who live there will be reluctant to keep footing the bill. Local government bureaucracy and money wrangles along with government cuts to councils are huge threats to disability organisations.

Raana at her 21st birthday with her niece, Maya.

Cuts have to be made, but the axe is falling on those who need it most.

To return to the happiness survey, the correlation between happiness and strong welfare and social support is well-documented. For example, as social policy professor Alan Walker notes, ‘social quality’ is key to measuring happiness; he defines social quality as how much people are able to participate in society under conditions that enhance their individual potential and wellbeing. Social quality is commonly used in European social policy and, says Walker, the essential foundations of social happiness include health care, housing, employment-related benefits and additional forms of social assistance.

Money alone won’t ever make you happy, but taking it away from social support, and from those who need it most, not only adversely affects their well-being, but that of others around them. And what’s more, the support my sister and her peers receive today unlocks their potential, enabling them to play their part in society tomorrow.

I’m sure the £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness will include complex statistical science and a multitude of boxes to tick but I quite like this rather more simple equation:
Vulnerable person + resources x specialised support = happiness

Saba Salman on social affairs