This Monday was International Day of Friendship. To mark the occasion, we’re looking back on some of the brilliant groups in Northern Ireland who are using money raised by National Lottery players to build relationships, tackle isolation, and nourish friendships between all types of people.
Roberta Dallas, 65, was a single mum with health problems who became increasingly isolated after her son left home. But she was given a new lease of life through her involvement with the Mid Ulster Volunteer Centre’s Carefully Yours programme.
Roberta worked as a teacher in Magherafelt and raised her son, Robert, with only the support of her beloved dad. Roberta’s father sadly died when Robert was in lower sixth, and when Robert moved to England for university the following year Roberta found herself increasingly isolated. But it was only when she retired that she felt truly lonely.
“I discovered for the first time that I didn’t have anyone,” added Roberta. “Originally I just pottered about home and my days had no real structure. And the more I stayed at home the lonelier and more trapped in my own habits I became.”
That was until a Carefully Yours project worker from the Mid Ulster Volunteer Centre invited Roberta along to their crochet group.
From that point on Roberta didn’t look back. She joined a variety of classes and groups including the drop in centre where she joined people with learning disabilities.
“I found it gave me something that I wasn’t getting any other way in my life. It gave me friends,” said Roberta. “The people I’ve met at the drop in centre have taught me a different way of living. We play board games and have a bit of craic together and it’s just being with people for the sheer enjoyment of it.”
The Carefully Yours project has made a profound and powerful difference to Roberta’s life thanks to the generosity of National Lottery players.
“Through MUVC I have a completely new group of friends I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, and that’s true of all of us,” say Roberta. “We are all either single or widowed or otherwise on our own. With MUVC, we are friends in the group and outside of the group and I wish I had met them earlier in life.”
Like Roberta, Harriet Mills struggled with isolation and loneliness – but found refuge and friendship in Newington Day Centre.
Harriet Mills first came into contact with Newington Day Centre when her husband was referred to the centre for day care. “My husband Eddie had severe arthritis and Alzheimer’s and because of this I couldn’t get out at all. So it could be months and I would just be in the house and dependent on people bringing things in.”
Newington Day Centre uses money raised by National Lottery players to help older people remain in their own homes, and is using the funding to reach more isolated older people and offer activities to get them involved in their community.
Harriet went on to say, “Eddie and I loved the garden so when they started the gardening club at Newington Eddie got involved with that, it kept his interest and he brought me home plants which we planted together and it was just wonderful. It was 2 years that we had together that we wouldn’t have had, 2 years of good time and time to do normal things out in the garden, it just was wonderful.”
Sadly Harriet’s beloved husband Eddie died in October 2014, but she has is still involved with Newington.
“I still do the gardening club that Eddie loved. I was also involved in the Life Story books for Eddie. It was bittersweet as I had to go through lots of old photos and the timing wasn’t great but I have this wonderful Life Story book now. It was really lovely and the family loved it. I thought it would be difficult to go back but I gradually started volunteering and I am getting a great lot out of it. I’ve made great friends and it just didn’t stop with Eddie.”
Margaret McCrudden, Centre Manager, summed up Newington Day Centre: ““An overall community effect is what I think care in the community is all about. It’s about people helping each other. Loneliness can become a vicious circle. All our activities brighten their mood and make life easier, even for the carers at home.
“We are user led and do our best to respond to what the members want, whether it is through our monthly meeting, or me just sitting and having a chat. I really feel we are at the heart of the community.”
North Belfast Men’s Shed was started back in 2012 as a way to bring older men together and tackle social isolation. Using money raised by National Lottery players, the project supports older men to get involved in community activities and take up volunteering.
The project is led by its participants. A team of over 50 men are involved in the day-to-day running of the Shed on a volunteer basis and other men volunteer to share their skills and welcome new members.
One member described it like the impact this welcome can make: “We meet people and show them round – for some men they might find it difficult to take the first step to come through the door. Once they’re here they have no difficulty getting involved in everything that goes on here.”
Another member explains: “People assist and help each other: if someone has a bit of experience, they pass this on to others in the shed and I’m not just talking about skills, but life experiences also.”
Older men can sometimes struggle to get involved in their local community, and are often less likely to volunteer than other demographics. North Belfast Men’s Shed challenges that trend by helping men to volunteer in other organisations as well as their own.
For example, Shed members have volunteered their time to make squirrel boxes for the Ulster Wildlife Foundation; bird boxes for Belfast Hills Partnership; buddy benches for local schools; delivered craft classes to members of Newington Day Centre; and made around 200 lanterns for PIPS charity World Suicide Awareness Day.
As well as bringing the men’s skills and expertise to the wider community, North Belfast Men’s Shed also plays a big part in helping the men make new friends and combatting isolation and loneliness.
“The Men’s Shed has brought me into contact with others whom I would not have otherwise met,” says one member. “I so look forward to the activities but most of all the camaraderie. Friendships formed in the Shed are developing outside the shed in other fields. The North Belfast Men’s Shed has been an invigorating experience on my recovery from major heart surgery.”
These groups – and so many others – demonstrate the profound impact that friendship can have. With a strong network of friends, people are better able to cope with difficult times in their lives. With the support of money raised by National Lottery players, groups like Belfast Men’s Shed, Newington Day Centre and Mid-Ulster Volunteer Centre are able bring people together to build deep and meaningful relationships, increasing resilience, and improving quality of life for everyone involved.