NEWS: A rather ‘Nice’ Friday evening – Erdington’s Evening of Creativity hosted by celebrity guest, Mrs Barbara Nice 20.11.20

Words by Jobe Baker Sullivan / Pics courtesy of Sami Saunders, Janice Connolly, and Anne-Marie Allen

Erdington’s long running Evening of Creativity has never missed a month, even during COVID-19 pandemic.

Thriving on art, creativity, and giving creatives a chance to experiment, it is now being broadcast using a mix of high quality camera-work and editing along with locals being asked to submit their art from home.

Tonight’s Evening of Creativity broadcast will be hosted by actress and comedian Janice Connolly BEM, under the guise of her lovable alter-ego Mrs Barbara Nice. Janice is a comedienne who hosted the 2019 Erdington Lights switch on.

“Up the arts!” she says, with a wry smile, in support of the event. 

November’s Evening of Creativity will commence with a traditional Indian dance from Sahana Shrikaanth in celebration of Diwali, an annual ‘festival of lights’, celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus and Jains.

It will include performances from classical guitarist Mike Bethel – alongside original musical songs by Anne-Marie Allen, promoting her album on Spotify.

Centrala Art Gallery will feature as part of the EoC with their lockdown-special online exhibition – hosting an art collective from Finland called Valmed Ry, exploring ecology and nature through photography, projection and 3d printing.

The Evening of Creativity was founded and hosted by the Erdington Arts Forum, whose primary goal is to improve the status of artistic activity in the Erdington constituency.

The Arts Forum engages people with workshops, exhibitions, training programmes, exhibitions and music performances.

It acts as a conduit for people to explore all range of artistic activities, hosting regular ‘forum meetings’ and running a Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook group, and mailing list to keep Erdingtonians and interested parties in the loop.

Ordinarily held at Oikos Café on Erdington High Street on the third Friday of each month, the Evening of Creativity had to adapt to an online format very quickly  due to the coronavirus lockdowns – embracing the chance to invest in new camera and sound recording equipment.

During the summer of 2020, as COVID-19 measures eased, the Evening of Creativity continued at Oikos Café with a small, live audience – using a table booking service to ensure social distancing and safety measures.

The regular showcase, however, continued to broadcast all their events – going out live using a multi-camera system.

Despite a new national lockdown coming into force 5th November, the Arts Forum once again continue to host their Evening of Creativity – following government guidelines – by using pre-recorded clips and editing them into a full length show.

You can watch this months’ Evening of Creativity online from the Erdington Arts Forum Facebook page, from 6:30pm on Friday 20th November.

For a live stream of the event, and for more on the Erdington Arts Forum, visit www.facebook.com/groups/cafeartsforum

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FEATURE: Erdington Foodbank, an increasingly essential local lifeline

As the numbers of local families in need of support double due to the coronavirus crisis, with thousands facing a “bleak winter”, MP for Erdington, Jack Dromey, visits the longstanding food distribution service at Six Ways Baptist Church.

Words & pics by Ed King – some images taken from Erdington Local archives

Erdington Foodbank has been feeding double the numbers of local families this year – due to the effects of the coronavirus crisis, including continued lockdowns and spiralling unemployment.

Operating two days a week, at 6 Ways and George Road Baptist churches, the long standing local food bank has seen ‘a significant increase’ – including twice the number of children, as compared to last year.

This year, so far… this financial year, we’ve provided food for 10,000 people and more than 3,000 of are children,” explains Reverend Gerrard Goshawk – minster at Six Ways Baptist Church, “that’s been a significant increase, doubling the number of children. Overall, we’re looking at being twice as busy as we were the last financial year.

We have new people coming all the time, where there circumstances have suddenly changed, and we have people who are coming to us week in week out because they’re stuck in a situation that’s hard for them. 

So, we open twice a week – and within a short space of time, when we open, we get very, very busy. As you can see there’s a big queue here today.”

Launched in 2013, supported by the Trussell Trust, Erdington Foodbank has been operating within the community for nearly a decade – offering free to access ‘three day emergency food supplies’ via a referral system.

Last year the local food bank distributed nearly 4,000 care packages, feeding people of all faiths. But with mass unemployment due to COVID-19 lockdowns the numbers of those in need have increased dramatically this year.

Stretching from the church hall doors out onto Wood End Road, long lines of people have become a regular sight at Six Ways Baptist Church – sometimes waiting hours in bitter weather to receive bags of food and essentials. And the same can be seen at food banks across the city. 

As we sink into what will be a bleak winter,” tells MP for Erdington Jack Dromey – whilst visiting the Six Ways centre, “for thousands of people locally in Erdington the demand for food banks is growing and growing.

We’re here today (Six Ways Baptist Church) talking to guys who were at work, who have lost their jobs, and who are now desperate – and they turn to the food bank This is a long standing food bank… but what they’re seeing is a sharp increase in families using it. The number of those using this particular food bank have doubled.”

It’s down to the Government,” tells Kenneth Ball – a qualified mechanic who now relies on extra support from Erdington Foodbank.

The way they’ve cut back benefits… bang. From ESA to Universal Credit, they’ve taken half of our money away – so, we have to rely on places like this (Erdington Foodbank).”

Universal Credit are monthly payments, but most people have deductions,” mirrors Michael Blake – a professional baker who lost his job due to the coronavirus crisis. “The money they’ve got left over can only support them for one or two weeks, but what about the other two weeks?

In this environment, the Government should cancel the deductions – I’m not saying they’re not doing a good job, but they should wait until everything’s settled down then put the deductions back into force. We know we owe the money… but give us a break.”

Echoing the call for compassion, Jack Dromey reiterates the growing number of local voices who have been left vulnerable – with thousands across the constituency seeking a range of support as the country begins a second lockdown.

In terms of the effects on people personally, and I say this with immense sadness, the scars that are being inflicted – unless we’re careful – will last for years,” continues Dromey.

The scars mental ill health, the scars of children not being able to go to school for months on end, the scars sometimes endured by women in this constituency as victims of domestic violence.

We need to act, to save lives and to save livelihoods, but then to have a strong community supporting the community. That’s why we have the Erdington Taskforce, of which I was proud to be part of establishing, which has been doing so well supporting people locally.

I would urge the people of Erdington to play their part with acts of kindness, good neighbourliness, and supporting one another. But as far as the foodbanks are concerned, they badly need food – the demand is soaring.”

To find out more about Erdington Foodbank, visit www.erdington.foodbank.org.uk
For more from Jack Dromey MP for Erdington, visit www.jackdromey.org

For a list of local support services operating during the coronavirus crisis, visit the COVID-19 Local Support database and address book, www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

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OPINION: Coronavirus crisis, in crisis – do we have the strength for another lockdown?

Words by Ed King

Christmas is cancelled.

Or being split into three, to be exact.

The parasites of paranoia have carved our turkey into socially distanced servings this year, with support bubbles now dictating the one day my family always did well. And always did together.

It’s breaking my heart. It’s broken my family. The childhood joy I feel around Yuletide has been replaced by limitations and fear – with parlour games and presents being pushed into the cold by social isolation and shielding.

Whilst I understand why… be warned, if someone suggests a Zoom meeting on Christmas Day I’m going to start throwing sprouts (or maybe coals off the fire).

And that was all before Saturday’s announcement.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (not a bad place to be right now), on 5th November England is moving into another national lockdown – lasting four weeks or longer, we’re back to where we were in March and until at least the start of December.

Coronavirus has spiked over summer, and the precarious but pragmatic locally enforced ‘tier system’ hasn’t had the desired effect.

People are still getting sick. People are still dying. Potentially more than we can manage – 661 new ‘lab confirmed’ cases per day (Government, 1st Nov) are being reported in Birmingham, with over a million people across the UK having caught the virus since we started taking count, leading to nearly 50,000 deaths. That we know of.

But whether you’re the Office of National Statistics or Chris Whitty’s pocket calculator, the invisible beast is rampant once again. It’s a worrying and sharp upward curve – the trajectory of positive cases looks like an alpine skier’s Christmas wish.

So, it’s back to the short, sharp, circuit breaker approach to stem the contagion – a method already adopted by both our British Isle counter parts and most of mainland Europe. Lockdown, across the country. Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. Game, set, match. God help us all.

I’ll be honest, I’m not happy about it. I’m not a lot of things about it. There are other words I could use to flesh out my feelings but I’m trying to stay on the right side of righteousness.

But I get it; I get the need for it. I support it, in my way. If it needs to be done, then it must be done. So, let’s do it as quickly as possible. And do it right.

And whilst the voice of reason rolls around my head, ‘coronavirus fatigue’ is spreading across the country in a way that ironically reminds me of the virus itself. I feel that too.

When we were first told to ‘duck and cover’ back in March, people responded. They shut their doors, they covered their mouths, and we all walked forward together in a show of unity that I never imagined I’d see. It was, despite all the horror, a beautiful sight – the innate goodness and kindness reaffirmed my sometimes ailing faith in the human endeavour.

It was not without its cost, however. To put it into a personal context, I lost £8000 as soon as the first lockdown was announced – by time it took me to drive from Stourbridge to Kings Heath. By the end of the week, I’d lost anther £2000. And I’m not a rich man.

Over the months that followed the goal post shifting cost me more that I can calculate – financially and emotionally, along with most of the country I started circling the drain. And I have not lost as much as many, many, MANY more people I both know and work with. I am one of the lucky ones.

But we did it. We did what needed to be done. And like the end of December dinner I hold so close to my heart, we did it together. It was quite an incredible sight to see too, the sheer fortitude that swept from bus stops to boardrooms was nothing short of miraculous. People showed their true colours and those colours shone bright.

Over the past, ghastly, few months, I’ve been amazed and made proud by people’s resilience during this pandemic – at their deep rooted kindness and adaptability. It’s been incredible and uplifting. It’s been inspiring. It’s almost been worth it just to see such compassion. It makes me want to cry a bit every time I really, truly, think about it. But it’s been awful, a waking nightmare. It’s destroyed lives…

…and now we have to do it all again.

I’m sitting in a pub writing this, my local, squeezing out the last drops of my Sunday and licensed premise camaraderie I’ll be able to enjoy for a while. It’s one of those pubs where they know your name and you can walk in alone. Where you’re always amongst friends.

All around me – amidst the conversations of armchair eugenics and headline politics, despite the sharp end of the stick breaking the ribs of the hospitality industry – I am getting a sense of that end-of-March solidarity. People are preparing for Thursday, for the lockdown, and their doing it with the honesty and humour that I saw back in spring.

So, again, I feel proud. Again, I feel fear. But if we can call on the inner core kindness that we found eight months ago… then again, I feel we’ll get through this.

And next Christmas I’m hiring a marquee, everyone’s welcome.

Ed King is a Birmingham born writer and editor-in-chief of Review Publishing, which publishes Erdington Local  – alongside Active Arts Castle Vale. To follow him (and his stories) on Twitter, visit www.twitter.com/edking2210

For more on Review Publishing, visit www.reviewpublishing.net/

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NEWS: Evening of Creativity’s Black History Month special at Oikos Café on Friday 16th October

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics supplied by Erdington Arts Forum

On Friday 16th October, running between 6-8pm at Oikos Café on Erdington High Street, the Erdington Arts Forum is hosting a special Evening of Creativity – in celebration of Black History Month (BHM).

Set to be another exciting evening of poetry, music, and visual art, the long running event has been given the coronavirus all clear to allow a limited, ticketed physical audience in to enjoy the show.

A popular showcase of art and endeavour, the Evening of Creativity is expected to sell out – anybody wanting tickets should click here to check availability. All tickets must be purchased in advance.

Anyone who cannot join the live event at Oikos Café will be able to watch online via the Erdington Arts Forum Facebook page, with behind the scenes interviews also being broadcast. Donations to help support the event and local Arts Forum can also be made online.

A specially programmed showcase in support of Black History Month (BHM), Friday’s guest producer, Samiir Saunders, who also lives in Erdington, talks more about the importance of the event: “For the past 3 and a half years, the Evenings of Creativity have been an important staple of Erdington’s performance arts scene.” 

He goes onto to say that, “as an artist and poet who is very early on in my career, I have personally gained a lot from being given the platform to share my work with my local community, as well as the opportunity to meet other artists like me.

On producing the special BHM event, Samiir is “incredibly excited this month to be part of the team creating that same platform for others!”

Friday’s BHM special Evening of Creativity is set to welcome the powerful words of published poet Ryan Sinclair, musical musings of singer songwriters Xolo and Philippa Zawe, and a speech from Adrian Anderson from the mental health charity, Black Minds Matter UK.  

There will also be a special celebrity guest live performance from 2018 BBC Young Musician of the year Xhosa Cole and his trio.

The Evening of Creativity’s ‘online gallery’ this month features another Erdington resident, Oliver Hassell, who says: “I’m proud to be exhibiting my work in my hometown, and helping the growth of the local art community.”

Talking about what BHM means to him, Oliver continues: “I believe that Black history should be told every month of the year. It’s just as important as the rest of history and I don’t think that it should only be focused on for just one month. Black history is British history, American history, and world history.”

With Birmingham now in the Tier 2 list of new lockdown restrictions, as announced on Wednesday, it is fortunate that the Evening of Creativity live event at Oikos Café can continue – the event has taken place every month for nearly four years without missing a show.

Oikos Café have been required to make only a few changes to the venue, including only allowing ‘household bubbles’ to sit at a table together.

Ensuring Oikos Café operates COVID-19 safe, venue manager Ben Jeffery has an official statement for Erdington Local:

In light of the Government restrictions to combat the growing risk of COVID-19, Oikos Café continues to operate cleanliness, social distancing and crowd limitations in accordance with government guidelines.

We are proud to welcome people and continue operating legally as a business in this difficult time, and look forward to welcoming patrons and local people for our monthly extravaganza with the Arts Forum”.

To book your advance tickets for the Evening of Creativity, visit online ticket outlet Eventbrite: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/evening-of-creativity-16102020-black-history-month-tickets-122386670827

To watch the Evening of Creativity live stream, including exclusive backstage interviews and other videos, visit the Erdington Arts Forum Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ErdingtonArts

For more on Oikos Café, including contact details and information on the venue’s COVID-19 safe regulations, visit www.oikoscafe.co.uk

For more on Birmingham’s Black History Month, visit www.birminghamblackhistorymonth.co.uk

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OPINION: Invest in live music, not the pub

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Profile pics by Chris Neophytou

Imagine if the government invested in the soul of the nation.

‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ wrote Shakespeare.

I’m talking about music. From the point of view of a musician and gigaholic.

Music makes the world go round,” sang the Hamilton Brothers.

What I’ve witnessed over the past few months is a series of missed opportunities. ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better,’ taught William Blake.

Can we move forward from now, into the festive season, and reengage musicians? We can’t lose this precious part of our culture – live music. A lack of opportunities in the past few months has meant that brass players lips crumble, violinist fingers are stiff. All musicians – the well-behaved ones at least – are struggling.

It’s apparently too dangerous for musicians to be doing what they do, entertaining us all, bringing us all to a higher state of consciousness with harmonious sounds and that. Especially singers (yes, singers are musicians). Singing in groups is considered a ‘higher risk activity’ by the government, because of the potential for aerosol production. Don’t get me started on those pesky woodwind instruments. Ignore the hundreds of people protesting on the streets, Dominic Cummings on his roadshow of potential infection, or the big queue in Lidl – “there’s a flute player in this place! Shoot them! Or open a window for better circulation!”

At least I’ve had some gigs, I guess. I can’t complain, but I think I’m allowed to be somewhat sardonic. I’ve had a few livestreams, a handful of small outdoor gigs paid by the magic Arts Council England money tree of ‘please don’t forget us next year, we’re doing our best.’ Grateful. Honestly, very grateful. Here comes the cold now, where do we go?

Well, pubs are open. Great. And musicians are able to play in them, following some volume-related rules.  But that’s not really the investment in the soul I had in mind. Pubs are a chance for this full time musician to go out with his band ‘Jobe and the Spotify Playlists’ – doing requests for the ‘loud drunk guy at the front’, who shouldn’t be raising his voice anyway, but he’s bigger than me and the bouncer hasn’t spotted him yet/this pub forgot to hire security.

My experience in the pubs has been stressed landlords trying to tame insatiable extroverts and more covid-19 deniers than you can shake a Piers-Corbyn-branded stick at (I could have chosen any number of Covid-19 deniers). It’s a place for extroverts to get their fix, and the amount of antisocial behaviour I’ve seen at 21:55 because it’s kicking out time has been rather laughable. I proudly nurse my pint knowing I can stay past 22:00 curfew – I’m working!

I can see my musician mates disappearing off to ‘retrain’ under the reign of Rishi Sunak. Whether he did or did not say that people in the arts need to go and find a proper job, we’re just generally hot and bothered about the whole malaise of the situation.

Goodbye fellow musicians. Part of me wants to say ‘yey, more work for me’, but losing my band and playing to backing tracks actually makes my skin crawl. “Please!” I plea to my drummer (percussionists also considered musicians), “don’t become an itinerant electrician in Bedfordshire! You’ll be too tired by to gig on a Friday when you get back to Brum. Oh, and I need this amplifier pat tested.”

We’re quite harmless, actually, us musicians. We might complain about not being paid enough, and, no matter how much you’ve paid us, if we don’t get a free drink from the bar your name is besmirched for life. We all keep a spreadsheet of scrooge-oriented venue managers…

Anyway, we’re harmless.

On the 6th of October, there was a protest gathering of over 400 musicians in Parliament Square. They formed an impressive orchestra and blasted Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets, Op.32 at the politicians, who must have enjoyed a rather delightful evening concert for free. See? We can’t even protest, right! Lorry drivers strike by not driving. Teachers strike by their absence, shutting down a school. Us musicians strike by “ooh come on let’s have a ruddy good jam session, that’ll learn ‘em!”

Just imagine if the government invested in venues over this period, ready for the world to return to normal. Clean, socially distanced, even folk-club style. All people welcome. This could be a chance for people to listen to new music, or old music in a new way. You can actually pay attention to the lyrics for once! Dancing from our seats, doing the sit-down shuffle, and practicing to become the best ‘hummers’ in the world. May I suggest Puccini’s ‘Cora a bocca chiusa’. Or be inspired by the vocal acrobatics Bobby McFerrin.

I guess the only profound quote we can be left with now is that of Jim Bowen, the host of the 80s darts-themed TV gameshow Bullseye. After the players had lost, the curtains would draw back to reveal a speedboat, a car, or a “beautifully crafted Wedgwood Dinner Service set.” “Let’s see what you could have won,” Jim would say.

We’ve invested in health. We’re investing in economy. Let’s not forget the soul.

Let’s see what we could have won.”

To find out more about Jobe Baker-Sullivan, visit www.facebook.com/jobesullivanmusic

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BACK TO: …work, with Dellano Lewis – Employment & Engagement Officer at Witton Lodge Community Association

Words by Dellano Lewis / Pics by Ed King

As the country takes its first steps out of lockdown – with people returning to their places of work, education, and leisure – Erdington Local has been asking for some simple steps to help us get back to normal.

This article has been supported by the Erdington Coronavirus Taskforce – for a full list of local support services, visit www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

______________

EL:  You are the Engagement and Employment Support Worker at Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) – tell us a bit more about your role and responsibilities?
DL: My role includes outreach activities, working alongside our partners such as DWP, handling paperwork related to registration, actively updating and monitoring client database, filing away documents, ensuring monthly reports are submitted to secure finances. Other duties include helping clients with CVs, job application forms, universal credit accounts, job searching, digital skills, helping to find suitable work, training and voluntary opportunities.

Prior to the lockdown I also conducted weekly employment related activities in groups, delivering weekly online sessions, operating the WLCA Instagram page, creating content using video software, supporting with other areas which increase the associations presence through live events such as (Track Friday). Building key relationships with local providers in and across Birmingham are also a part of my role. 

EL: How long have you been working in the community?
DL: This will now be just over four years working in the community. 

EL: How did you find your job?
DL: I had met Iram (Fardus – WLCA’s Business Development & Performance Manager) at the time and the opportunity came about to do some volunteering with the association around helping the youth. I was very interested in this, so I decided to take on the opportunity. Through volunteering I was then given a part time role leading to a full time position. 

EL: The coronavirus crisis has turned many people’s worlds upside down, how has it affected the people you work with through WLCA?
DL: Due to the situation a lot of people haven’t been able to cope with looking for work – another thing is the health and wellbeing of the client, if someone is not in the right frame of mind to look for work it will be difficult for them to move forward. Alongside that, clients have been struggling with I.T. – this has also been one of the major factors preventing people from accessing opportunities. 

EL: What are the most immediate concerns facing people over employment?
DL: Some of the immediate concerns from people are finances and health – a lot of people have lost jobs and a number of business’s have closed. 

EL: What are WLCA doing to address these concerns?
DL: The response from WLCA Team has been exceptional – this is including all the volunteers that stepped in to support. Our service had a slight change in delivery, making everything accessible online; clients who had an interest in accessing jobs during the lockdown were able to contact the employment team and receive this support.

Many families and individuals were feeling very worried, the prompt action and response from the team in delivering services related to food gave the residents and people in the community a sense of reassurance that someone is looking out for them.

Health & Wellbeing was also a major factor. With the lockdown, mental health was increasingly affecting a majority of people. Staying connected with those affected, especially the elderly, was very important as they were the ones who have gone months without seeing family, friends, or even outdoors. 

EL: For anybody looking for employment, especially during the coronavirus crisis, what simple first steps should they take?
DL: If you are currently looking for work one of the things to have ready is an active CV, this is like your plane ticket. The CV is the first thing an employer is going to see so make sure everything is correct and easy to read; ensure your work history, qualifications, and any type of work experience you have done is on the CV.

Alongside the CV, create a cover letter and indeed account once you have these begin to make a plan of action. Think about the type of job you want to be doing short term and the career long term. If you require some support with taking the next step or setting these things up give us a call for support (0121) 382 1930. 

EL: What about people who are having to self-isolate, are there any pathways to employment they could take?
DL: For those self-isolating, don’t feel discouraged – with online learning you can sure find something that interests you. Platforms such as alison.com, Future Learn, and Vision2Learn have a wide range of free courses you could do online to gain knowledge and even claim a certificate upon completing.

EL: How about people who are still in employment, but feel unsupported or uncertain about their workplace – what advice would you give them?
DL: If you are feeling unsupported or uncertain about your place of work, one of the first things would be to speak to your manager and let them know how you are feeling. Also check out the furlough scheme information on the Governement’s website in the event of becoming unemployed, you will be able to claim 80% of your wages through your employer.

Click the link for more information: www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wages-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme

EL: With lockdown restrictions being imposed again on certain pockets of the country, as speculation around a ‘second spike’ of COVID-19 grows, what preparation can people take – around employment?
DL: In relation to a potential second spike I think it would be a good Idea to develop some digital skills. Starting from the very basic, if you are more advance explore areas of work that require some computer device to carry out the role.

In various areas of work the role may require you to complete an administrative task, so gaining those skills from now will be really good. Create a plan of action, think about two or three areas of work you would like explore – it may not be computer related – go online and learn the fundamentals for those roles, the information is free and accessible.

Remember to take time out for yourself as well don’t feel too pressured into doing everything all at once. Exercise, try to have something healthy to eat, looking for work is a challenge but keep going think positive and stay active.

Full more from Witton Lodge Community Association, visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

For more on the government’s Job Retention Scheme, visit www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wages-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme

This article has been supported by the Erdington Coronavirus Taskforce – for a full list of local support services, visit www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

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NEWS: Witton Lodge Community Association launch Digit-All, tackling ‘digital poverty’ with a new electronic lending library

Words by Steve Sharma / Pics supplied by Witton Lodge Community Association

From Monday 24th August, isolated and vulnerable Erdington residents will be able to access essential support services thanks to an innovative new project being rolled out by Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) – Erdington Local can reveal.

The Perry Common based organisation is launching Digit-All – its own IT lending Library – to provide older residents and others in need of digital literacy support with the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to engage online.

Paul Tse, Flourishing Community Development Officer at WLCA, explains how COVID-19 has heightened an already pressing concern around digital literacy.

As a result of the lockdown, a significant number of the services and activities which older residents are dependent on have moved online,” he said.

The levels of digital poverty in Erdington were already quite high but this situation has seen even more adults become marginalised, unable to access the support they need. This puts them at greater risk of isolation, poor mental health, and mobility difficulties. Our project seeks to redress this imbalance and prevent such suffering.”

Work being delivered by the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce and Witton Lodge’s employment and skills and health & wellbeing teams, has identified a number of people in urgent need of digital literacy support. Digit-All will address the three main areas of concern which have been identified – a lack of IT facilities, a lack of connectivity, alongside confidence and capability.

We have purchased a range of portable IT equipment including laptops and tablets that will be available to lend to isolated, vulnerable adults,” added Paul.

As part of the service offer, we will also be providing users with a free data plan (and/or wireless dongles) to enable individuals to connect to the Internet where they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to.

Digital skills training will also be available to help older adults learn how to use their devices and interact with others through platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook or Zoom.”

Funding for the project has been acquired through the Erdington Neighbourhood Network Scheme – one of Birmingham City Council’s constituency-based networks, established to enable engagement with and investment in community assets which support older people to lead independent and connected lives.

Councillor Paulette Hamilton, Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, said: “Neighbourhood Network Schemes have been set up to reduce isolation and improve social connectivity and wellbeing at a local level and in particular to support our older and more vulnerable citizens, keeping them active and engaged within their own localities.

The evidence of work carried out by organisations like Witton Lodge during the COVID-19 lockdown reveals that many of our older adults either do not have access to information technology that could help them be more in control of their lives, or do not have the confidence and ability to navigate the Internet to search for information and services that can help them remain independent.

Digit-All is a proactive response to digital poverty that has become more apparent during COVID-19 across our communities.  I am excited and look forward to seeing the service develop and being rolled out across Birmingham’s neighbourhoods,”

The project, as a prototype, launches from Monday 24th August – with those already identified as being in urgent need of support the first to receive laptops and tablets.

Following this initial trial period, the scheme Witton Lodge Community Association are looking to roll out Digit-All to a wider audience across North Birmingham.

For more information and photo opportunities call Steve Sharma on 0121 382 1930 or email steve.sharma@wittonlodge.org.uk

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association, visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

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NEWS: Upcycle Birmingham launches new showroom in the heart of Castle Vale

Words & pics by Ed King

On Monday 3rd August, Upcycle Birmingham launches its new showroom – selling second hand furniture and household goods at ‘an affordable price’, whilst raising money for community projects and support services on the Castle Vale estate.

Taking over the old St Gerrards community hall, Upcycle Birmingham has moved its large furniture facility into centre of Castle Vale – relocating from its previous premises on the Castle Vale Enterprise Park, situated off Park Lane.

With a sister shop on the local High Street, which sells smaller household items and clothes, Upcycle Birmingham now has all of its public operations right in the heart of Castle Vale – within easy walking distance of each other, as well as the estate’s main shopping and social hub.

We set Upcycle up about six and half years ago,” explains Judy Tullett – Community Services Coordinator at Spitfire Services – who created and operate the social enterprise, “with funding from the end of the Endowment Trust – legacy funding from the Housing Action Trust.

It was always people’s vision that there would be a place where we would not only sell good quality second hand furniture, but where people could volunteer and come in and have a gossip as well. And that’s exactly what it’s turned out to be.”

By being in the centre of the estate, we can attract more people,” adds Ray Goodwin – CEO at Spitfire Services, “and we’ve done a lot of learning – we looked at selling more online, but unless you specialise in antiques and high end stuff it just doesn’t work. Do what you do and do it well.”

Opening in January 2014, Upcycle Birmingham is a ‘thriving furniture recycling business that helps people transform their homes with low cost, high quality goods.’

The Castle Vale based social enterprise, run diligently by a team of around 26 dedicated volunteers, sources unwanted stock – donated by local businesses and residents. The items are then cleaned, polished, and presented to the public at a significant saving.

But quality is key, with Upcycle Birmingham only accepting and reselling items that are still fit for purpose and in good condition. Erdington Local used the Castle Vale based social enterprise to furnish its newsroom – buying desks and office equipment that would have cost ten-fold from a branded retailer.

I went it to research a story and came out with a van load of desk and tables,” admits Ed King, Editor-in-Chief of Erdington Local. “I usually buy bits of office equipment from a reclamation yard in Digbeth, but the quality at Upcycle Birmingham was a different level.

Before I had finished talking to the staff and arranging our interviews, I’d bought a thick glass topped desk to replace the wooden one I’ve been working from.

It’s beautiful, in great condition, and cost me £20. To buy it new you’d be looking at around £300 minimum. Upcycle Birmingham saved me a small fortune.”  

Upcycle Birmingham have also ensured they are protected again coronavirus, sterilising all new items and placing them into a 72hr quarantine – ensuring no trace of COVID-19 could be passed on through a sale.

Both the showroom and High Street shop also operate under Government guidelines to combat the spread of coronavirus, implementing social distancing measures and hand sanitiser points for all customers.

Because of the lockdown we’ve had lots of new donations,”  tells Sue Spicer, a local resident and volunteer who has worked at Upcycle Birmingham since it opened.

But we have to isolate all items for three days before we can touch them. Everything is stored at Spitfire House before we can sterilise it and bring it over to the shop.”

Established and operated by Spitfire Services, with initial investment also coming from The Pioneer Group – though its Employment and Enterprise Trust Fund – Upcycle Birmingham first opened its doors in January 2014.

But as with many of the social enterprises supported or run by Spitfire Services, including Castle Vale Library and Castle Pool, Upcycle Birmingham is as much about community as it is about commerce – providing more than just a reasonable price for the people it serves.

It’s more of a community hub being here,” continues Sue Spicer, “if you didn’t have a car you had a long walk to get to the old place.

It’s good that were more local now. And it’s good for families, especially with things like children’s clothes… we call it the boutique on the high street. 

But the big thing is the sense of community – people come in and have a natter, they don’t’ always have to be buying something.

Before coronavirus and the lockdown, if someone came in and they looked like they needed a friendly face, we’d invite them to sit down and have a cup of tea and a chat.

And the kids love to come in and have a mooch after school too, with their parents or grandparents. We can’t do that as much at the moment because we’re only allowed limited numbers in the shop.”

In six and a half years, Upcycle Birmingham has become a firm fixture on the Castle Vale estate – now accepting 120 tonnes of stock each year and selling quality items to hundreds of households. Hopes are that the more central location of its new showroom will allow them to reach even more residents.

Celebrated and championed by the Erdington MP, Jack Dromey, the Castle Vale social enterprise also receives regular visits from its member of parliament.

There are homes throughout Erdington with residents who could not afford to furnish them,” tells Jack Dromey MP – after visiting the new showroom before they opened their doors to the public.

Thanks to Upcycle, these families can be proud of where they are bringing their children up. A remarkable organisation led by the inspirational Judy Tullett, Upcycle takes what local residents no longer want and gives it those who need.” 

To learn more about Upcycle Birmingham, visit www.upcyclebirmingham.org.uk

To learn more about Spitfire Services, visit www.spitfireservices.org.uk

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FEATURE: Castle Pool – first to open, last to close. The national success story of Castle Vale’s local swimming centre

Words & pics by Ed King

From 6am on Monday 27th July, Castle Pool will be back in business – making it the first of Birmingham’s swimming centres to reopen since the coronavirus crisis and national lockdown. But the four lane, 25m long pool has a bigger story to tell – a fantasy to an increasing number of local sports facilities across the country. Staying open.

Inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in November 1981, Castle Pool has been a health and leisure haven for people across the Castle Vale estate for nearly 40 years – used regularly by residents, schools, and swimming clubs.

Now adorned with social distancing signage, public sanitation points, and staff specially trained to manage the pool in accordance with guidelines from Public Heath England, the Farnborough Road facility is hoping for a quick and safe return to the “50,000 swims a year” they hosted before lockdown.

But life in the lanes at Castle Pool has not always been as confident or as certain. Back in 2012, Birmingham City Council had earmarked the pool for permanent closure – following a citywide evaluation of council run services that would see a swarm of facilities shut down for good.

However, the people of Castle Vale fought fearlessly to save Castle Pool – in a campaign started by local resident Amanda Cutler, that became the Castle Vale Pool Users Group.

My son swam here for years, he swam here since he was four years of age,” tells Amanda, who now works at Castle Pool as the Pool Support Officer.

He was doing lessons at the time, then all of a sudden someone said the pool may be closing. So, I started a petition – I went all round Castle Vale and got over 20,000 signatures. I didn’t know where to go with it but the Labour councillor at the time, Lynda Clinton, helped from there on.

There were a lot of pools closing down and this is the only facility on the Castle Vale estate for children. We were teaching children how to swim, for free. And we didn’t want that to stop.

My son has now become a swimming teacher and a lifeguard here. So, it’s created jobs too. But swimming is a life skill; everybody needs to know how to swim.”

Enlisting the further support of the Castle Vale based support agency Spitfire Services, the Castle Pool Community Partnership charity was formed in 2014 – allowing campaigners to get the checks, balances, and bank account in place for Birmingham City Council to agree an asset transfer. On 16th January that year, the responsibility of running Castle Pool was put directly into the hands of people who live and work on the Castle Vale estate.

When previously run by Birmingham City Council, Castle Pool was operating at a phenomenal loss of £250,000. But following the asset transfer in January 2014, Castle Pool has turned a profit every year since – managed by a team of local residents and community workers.

If you were to ask me, why did they (Birmingham City Council) sustain a £250,000 loss and you didn’t,” explains Judy Tullett – Community Services Coordinator at Castle Pool – part of the
Spitfire Services charity family of services.

“The reason is… the model is, making use of the pool from 6am to 10pm seven days a week. Or as much of it as you can. Having a mixture of (paid) staff and volunteers, and actually using your staff in the best way you can.

Most of the time, it wipes its face,” continues Judy, “it makes a small surplus. Partly because it’s a charity and we can attract funding. So, that helps. But it’s more about the way you manage and deliver your swimming service.

if you take a typical day, because that’s the best way to look at it, early morning you’ve got club swimmers who swim at 6am – the swimming clubs are all accredited and they look after themselves. There’s an agreement in place but there’s sufficient trust for them to open up, look after themselves, lifeguard it themselves, leave it as they find it.

Then the staff will come in at 8am and prepare the building for the schools – in our case we have local schools start at 8:30am. We also have between 20-30 lane swimmers several lunch times a week, then by 3:30pn the schools have finished. This gives us a chance to clean up.

Then at 4pm we start the swimming lessons – there’s a baby learn to swim group, we’ve just water aerobics – and at 6pm the clubs come back in. Every evening, except for Saturdays, the pool is then occupied by clubs. We shut at 9pm or 10pm.”

With ergonomics and community at its heart, Castle Pool began to flourish – encouraging constant use from not only the residents of Castle Vale, but from clubs and schools across the city. And with regular swimming instructors and lifeguards, as well as offering exclusive use to schools and swimming clubs, the safeguarding of young and vulnerable users at Castle Pool was much firmer.

We now have 26 schools using Castle Pool,” explains Judy. “Many of them drive past other swimming pools to come to us. Firstly, because we’re affordable. Secondly, because we’ve had the same lifeguards and swimming instructors since we opened – and they’re all local people.

Thirdly, they have the pool to themselves – so they’re not sharing the pool with the general public. They have the changing room to themselves, so in terms of safeguarding it’s amazing. They know that when they walk though those doors they’re the only ones there apart from staff and volunteers.”

Castle Pool is reversal of fortune that could make parts of Birmingham City Council blush – not to mention other administrations across the UK that are selling land, bricks, and mortar to in an effort to raise funds. And whether you blame apathy or strategy, when the questions of heritage and health get raised the public conversation can be increasingly drowned out.

But the success of Castle Pool is also a welcomed inspiration – with the team from Spitfire Services travelling across the city to assist the asset transfer of Moseley Road Swimming Baths in Balsall Heath, that had been under serious treat of closure for over a decade.

I worked with them (Moseley Road Swimming Baths) for about 15 months in the end,” explains Judy. “They invited me over because I have a passion for swimming and water – and because I’d previously done an asset transfer so I understood the language and I knew the people from the council who would be passing the asset over.

They had a group called Friends of Moseley Road Baths and had campaigned tirelessly for about 10 years. But they (Birmingham City Council) brought me over and employed me as Development Manger to help with the asset transfer.

What we negotiated was a licence, initially, that would allow Moseley Road Baths trustees to build up more expertise and get to know the building more. So, that never shut either.”

Back on the Castle Vale estate, the staff at Castle Pool are busy getting ready for the early morning reopening – running through their standard checks, alongside the new COVID-19 criteria that are now essential.

And whilst there is still a lot to do, people are buzzing with enthusiasm – excited to reopen the swimming centre they fought so had to save six years ago. The mix of dedication and love is as palpable as the hot air rising off the water.

Everybody works hard here, everyone does more than what they are supposed to,” adds Debs Henry, or ‘the amazing Deb’ as she is known by her colleagues – as she cleans, opens, and closes the entire site on her own.

It’s because we love it. It’s not like a job really, it’s something you look forward to. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I just keep everywhere clean and make sure everything is secure – but they’re all hard workers here.”

Although Castle Pool still has a few dark clouds looming on its horizon, requiring some much needed maintenance to the existing plant room – which encompasses the pool’s boiler and filter systems. Even with a firm pair of hands on the budget the work will take another £100,000, and that’s a lot of swimmers buying a lot of snacks from the vending machine.

But the locally run swimming centre, which has already fought its way back from the brink to become a national success story of community endeavour, is not backing down – with a fundraising strategy and programme of supportive events already in place.

If you were to ask me what is our No1 challenge is going forward,” tells Judy, “it’s not about recruiting volunteers or staff – it’s not about the use of the pool. It’s about making sure that our plant is fit for purpose.

“Our next big campaign, and we were part way through it before COVID-19, is developing a robust financial model to replace our boilers and filters

We’d got a plan in place; we’d had a boiler company come up and give us a very fair assessment of what we needed and what we needed to do… but it feels a bit like the Olympics, we’ve got to put that plan in place next year now – not this year.

And we want to do it all without closing, that’s important…. the actual fabric of the pool is good, but our main priority now is the plant room.”

Castle Pool is situated on Farnborough Road, Castle, Vale, Birmingham – and will be open from 6am on Monday 27th July. To find out more about Castle Pool, visit www.facebook.com/CastlePoolCommunityPartnership

To learn more about Spitfire Services, visit www.spitfireservices.org.uk

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FEATURE: James Brindley Academy’s Dovedale Centre – school life during lockdown

Words & pics by Ed King

There have been a lot of words used to describe the coronavirus crisis. But when it comes to education, one stands out. Uncertainty.

Out of all the public sectors, withstanding healthcare professionals fighting on the pandemic’s frontline, education has been one of the most affected by lockdown restrictions – with staff and students alike having to embrace dramatic changes.

But whilst ‘uncertainty’ is ever present across all year groups, thanks to COVID-19, those in transition are amongst both the most talked about – with Year 11 students preparing for further education under the biggest question mark of their young lives.

The thought of going to college is still ‘a big one’, for me personally,” explains Archie Walters – who has left his leavers BBQ to sit and talk to Erdington Local in a now physically distanced classroom. “But at the same time it isn’t massive, because I’ve got an older brother who is eighteen and in his second year of college – and seeing him do it has made me realise that I can do it as well.” 

I’ve had quite regular communication and emails from, and to, teachers,” tells Callum Kimberley – who is also leaving Dovedale this year to go into further education, “checking up on me and seeing if I’m alright.

Regarding how they prepare me for collage, one teacher did all that before lockdown… Miss Connor. She helped me a lot. When we went to Sutton (Collage) and we went into one of the classrooms for a lesson, she was more worried about that than me. She was like, ‘ah, you’ve really made me proud…”

Part of the James Brindley Academy, the Dovedale Centre is ‘a 81 placement provision for pupils with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)’ – teaching Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, preparing the older children for the next stage in their educational journey.

With a cohort that require a more tailored approach to teaching than those in mainstream schools, Dovedale’s students could be suffering the most during lockdown. But for Archie and Callum, at least, the experience has been surprisingly straightforward.

One of the reasons for that, is because in this school…” begins Archie, “it makes you feel like you’re important because they (teaching staff) will take their time, to give you emotional support wherever you need. And that’s partly, in my opinion, what makes the relationships between pupils and teachers here as good as they are. Because they’re willing to make the time.”

Quick to mirror the feelings, Callum continues: “Yeah, we have very good relationships… we have different ‘go to’ teachers. It’s basically ones with similar interests and there’s just loads to talk about – to be honest, quite a lot of pupils and teachers get along really well here…” 

As robust as any 15-16 year old you might want to meet, Archie and Callum head back out into the schoolyard – soaking up the last few hours with the people who have been so important to them over the past few years. But the students are only one side of a school, and life under lockdown has also been a shift for the staff at Dovedale.

At the start is was quite challenging,” tells Mr Ellery, a Teaching Assistant and Pastoral Worker with the Year 11 cohort, “it was difficult imagining being away from them in such an important year… and ending it almost halfway though. 

Usually they come to us for the answers – you’ve been through this before sir, how did you cope with it? But no one’s been through this (COVID-19) in their lifetimes and we can’t predict how long this is going to go on.” Concerns that are peppering society, but more acutely when it comes to education.

But like the world of work now entrenched in Zoom meetings, digital technology has helped Dovedale function during lockdown – using interactive online platforms, staff have been able to maintain a semblance of the status quo with their students.

We were able to get a group of kids together in a weekly Skype call,” continues Mr Ellery, “getting them talking to each other – encouraging them that, in a time like this, the best support comes from your friends and family, as well as your teachers.”

But Year 11 has its own challenges, not least of which is the transition from secondary to further education – a difficult time for any student, let alone a young person living with autism.

A lot of what we would have done in physical face to face meetings, has just taken place over the phone or virtually – via Microsoft Teams,” explains Ms Lowe, a Special Educational Needs Coordinator and English Teacher who works with Year 11 at Dovedale.

A lot of colleges have been great in providing virtual support as well,” continues Ms Lowe. “We’ve got one young person whose college has given them six weeks – half a day every week, for the last six weeks – where they’ve had a virtual tour of the college. They’ve met their tutors already; they’ve already been introduced to the people in their class. So, that’s really great.”

But necessity is often the other of invention, and the digital platforms that began as an interim measure are now being looked at as an unexpected silver lining – especially when dealing with students who can find social situations more of a challenge.

In my role as SENCO, it’s given me food for thought for some of our young people who’ve got real anxiety about coming to school in the first place,” adds Ms Lowe. “We’ve now got the tools and the knowledge and the skills to be able to still give them the education they’ve got the right to.”

A lot of them present themselves quite confidently, but they’ve got these deep rooted anxieties,” explains Mr Ellery. “But today, when I asked about their thought process about college, each one of them have said ‘I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m anxious about it starting, but I’m looking forward to it.”

This experience,” continues Miss Lowe, “it’s forced them to transfer the skills they’ve learned in school into their own personal life. Coming back after the lockdown, they are so much more mature. Their resilience has been overwhelming. They’ve been amazing.”

The strength of the relationships between students and teaching staff at Dovedale is palpable, mirrored in the words and actions of both. It’s the first thing everyone mentions when asked about school life.

But at the top of the hill you get the broadest view, and Dovedale is a community of students, staff, but also the parents and carers of the children that attend.

We started looking at what do parents want? What’s the need?” explains Charmaine Parry, Centre Leader at Dovedale.

Surveys were then put out to all our parents,” continues Ms Parry, “to find out what do they want? And not only do they want us to be open, but with what sort of provisions. What can we do to support them as parents? And to get our young people transitioning slowly back into the school system.

So, we went through that process, gathered the data, and then as a team – with the attendance officer, Pastoral managers, SENCO – we spoke to every parent. We said, look, tell me what you want. We’ve done the survey. We’ve got an idea. But now as an individual, you tell me, what do you need?”

One of the widespread concerns, in the media at least, has been physical distancing – clouded by doubt over whether young people would stick to the guidelines in school. At Dovedale, however, this hasn’t seemed to be a problem.

To start off with, we looked at the size of the classrooms – so we could work out how many pupils we could have realistically in school,” tells Ms Parry. “Then we did all the markings. The one way flow system, that was all put in place as well – having to come in through reception, go down the corridor, up the back end ,up the stairs, to come down the front, we put all that in place.

Surrounded by black and yellow can create a sense of safety, but also of urgency – how did the children at Dovedale respond? “There’s been a huge change,” admits Ms Parry, “but the minute they came in, they saw that they could understand it. It was very clear. The signs are really clear.”

But how about the parents and carers? “I think the parents are probably being a little bit more anxious,” continues Ms Parry. “But I’ve had emails from parents saying that they are now happy to send their child to school after hearing from other parents – telling how well it’s planned, the structure that’s in place for them, the one way system, and the social distancing. And that means a lot. 

We’re doing our best to make sure that staff and children are kept safe in school. And everyone’s adhering to that. Everyone understands the guidelines.”

So, despite understandable concerns, it seems life under lockdown at Dovedale has not made a drama out of a crisis.

And whilst many questions remain, there is another word that would be appropriately applied to Dovedale. One that may not have been spoken in March, but as September approaches is growing in both suitability and strength.

Confidence.

To find out more about James Brindley’s Dovedale Centre, visit www.jamesbrindley.org.uk/dovedale

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