Two Men and a Dog
How meeting through Shared Lives led Andy and James to form 'Local Social', a community interest company, that has changed both their lives.
Author: Andy Cooke
I drove James away from The National Society of Epilepsy, Chalfont at mid-day on December 15th, 2010. James had been living there for over 20 years, no one came to say goodbye.
I had left teaching in 2009, after more than 20 years, and was now to be a part of James’ life as a Shared Lives carer. I will always be truly thankful for the support from a brilliant Shared Lives carer, the social work team and the Shared Lives team, as at that time I knew next to nothing about social care.
One of the first things me, James and the family did was to choose puppy together. Laura, my wife, had always said we could have a dog when I ‘retired’. Hindsight is wonderful thing, but getting Bronte (Laura is an English teacher) has turned out so well. James had been brought up with dogs and it provided a great focus for us both then and in the years to come. It was important that James felt welcomed into the family by being a part of important decisions. Bronte and James are still the very best of buddies.
As time went by it seemed to me that James was defined by his learning disability and epilepsy, not helped by me making him carry round in a rucksack with is life medical history in it. He might as well have had a flag listing his needs, it would have been lighter! I was just reinforcing all the wrong messages.
James was used to waiting for me and others to do things for him and organise his life. Why wouldn’t he, as that is how his life had always been? He couldn’t get up in the morning and was labelled ‘lazy’, not by me, because I realised that he hadn’t had a reason to get up, look forward to things he enjoyed and as he says, ‘be a part of things’.
For me the turning point arrived after we had a target setting, planning and form filling exercise, with the ‘support worker’. I asked James if he understood what it was all about. He said ‘no’. I then asked James ‘what do you want to do?’, and he said, ‘I want more friends and a paid job’.
I found out what James was good at and what he liked doing. The list was quite long: cooking, gardening, birdwatching, playing golf, and something he had been told he shouldn’t do, Karate. Over time we set out doing these things, not always successfully. The allotment was much too hard work for the two of us, the organisation to support people into work couldn’t relate to James, didn’t find out what he was good at and just wanted tick boxes.
I slowly came to realise two things;
- James loved being with people. His smile attracted and engaged those around him.
- James knew very little about living in a real community and remember he had said he wanted ‘more friends’.
My determination to help James have a ‘real life’ became really strong. I was inspired by Paul Richards at StayUpLate, among others, to break away from activities organised for people with labels. We went to local cafes, pubs and shops, talked to his neighbours and James joined the local Karate club. We walked with Bronte and found interesting places to visit, and golf lessons which he loved.
Another thing which fuelled my determination was when James said that he was always told ‘not to bother’ about voting as he wouldn’t understand it. Red rag to a bull stuff for me and so we talked about the news, how it worked and were lucky enough to visit the House of Commons when James just happened to be speaking at a Shared Lives Parliamentary Reception for Shared Lives Plus! James voted for the first time in his life in 2015.
About this time, 2015, James started to volunteer making tea and coffee at the Ware Country Market, using his people skills, meeting the locals, being part of a team and helping what is now, his community. This was the time that the idea of forming Local Social really started to take shape. I had seen how it had helped James and so why couldn’t he be a big part of helping others?
We did some local research and, of course, found that there were many other people that with a bit of help and support could do the things they liked. We met up with Karin who had moved into the area and was connected to us by the social work team. Karin had embraced her new community by being part of her Church, volunteering at Brownies, doing Yoga, dedicated knitter and a background in self advocacy. Karin was just the girl for Local Social.
We talked to lots of people and managed to present our plan to Mark Harvey, now interim Chief Social Worker for England, who seemed to quite like them. He gave us ideas, people to read up on like Cormac Russell, lent us resources and fitted in mentoring sessions between Board meetings at County Hall.
Local Social CIC was officially up and running in April 2016 with three Directors, myself, James and Karin, with the tag line ‘connecting real lives’.
Based now at the Southern Maltings in Ware, Hertfordshire, James and Karin run the café every Friday morning, the place where James volunteered back in 2015.
Our aim is to have a welcoming friendly place for people to share stories and build friendships over a cuppa and to find out what is going on that they might like to get involved in and support them to do it. We want to discover the skills that people have in the community and actively promote other local organisations.
We don’t plan activities but there have been spontaneous bouts of pom-pom making, dominoes, cards, all of which generate great conversation.
Bronte, the dog, is a vital part of the team who inspires conversation and companionship at the café. She is a trained Dementia Dog Day Volunteer with Dogs for Good, a role we intend to develop.
The café was a slow burn to start with but now is a buzz of conversation, happiness, community and companionship, every Friday morning.
Local Social has recently partnered with another local organisation in running a coffee morning in a local pub and building relationships with people in a different part of the town.
It is in this area where we think we can develop some genuine community support, from the ‘bottom up’. We have started to listen to local people, build networks of organisations, work with East Herts Council and the social work team. We would love to work on the NDTi Community Led Support ‘Talking Points’ Hub model and create one here in Ware. It’s great that we had a visit from NDTi’s Brian Frisby, recently, to come and get a feel for what we are doing and kick around some ideas.
We know that Community Led Support needs system change and recognise all that involves, but can we contribute to create change here in Ware? We think we can.