Comic project with serious focus

2.12.2020 | Social Witness, Church in Society, Mission

Personal experience of addiction, homelessness, lockdown and mental health issues are being creatively channelled into the production of a comic style information leaflet by residents at Gray’s Court in Belfast, one of the services run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Council for Social Witness.

The project is one of a number of special initiatives aimed at improving the physical, mental health and wellbeing of residents and tenants at three PCI run services, thanks to an award of nearly £20,000 from the Housing Executive’s Supporting People Programme – Provider Innovation Fund.

The Supporting People Programme is UK-wide programme and was introduced to Northern Ireland in 2003 to provide housing support services to vulnerable people to enable them to move towards independent living in the community.

Alongside Gray’s Court, which provides supported accommodation for people in early recovery from substance use, Thompson House in Belfast, which delivers supported housing to former offenders will benefit from the funding through an art project. The funding will also provide training to enable staff from Gray’s Court and Thompson House to deal with addiction and trauma.

The third project to benefit from the funding is Willow Brook a supported housing scheme for nine people with a learning disability in Coleraine. The funding here will provide a new service not currently available to residents that will focus on physical wellbeing that will also have an impact on mental health – the conversion of a shed to house a treadmill and static exercise bike. Each resident will also have one-to-one sessions with an instructor, who will tailor activities to their ability and need. Staff will also get involved to help and encourage residents to use the equipment.

Welcoming the funding, Lindsay Conway, PCI’s Secretary to the Council for Social Witness said that hoped that this investment in people would generate real benefits for residents, tenants and staff alike. “The Housing Executive’s programme couldn’t be better named, as the projects that it is funding will go a long way in supporting people to live more independently and improve quality of life in general.

“All the projects have an innovative and transformative focus. The completion of the Gray’s Court comic book, which will also help others in the long-term following its publication, the Thompson House art work project and physical activity at Willow Brook, will help to deal with low self-esteem and related mental health issues.

Frances Craig, Gray’s Court project worker, said that while the comic isn’t yet completed, the work that has already been done has been worthwhile, “Everyone has been really enthusiastic and has come together around this, especially creating the storyline for the comic. We had support via Zoom from creative writer Rachael Kelly who helped the group write a fantastic script, full of their own personal experiences, such as moving into Gray's court and living through lockdown.

"Then there was support from Jim Lavery of Paper Crane Comics, via Zoom again, who worked with the group to bring their original sketches to life all. We are quite far on and just need to place in the text and speech bubbles. Our support worker Zoe Gray managed the project, as she had previous experience of creating a comic book, with a serious message, from her university placement year. I would like to thank her for the fantastic work, commitment and expertise that she brought to the project. Without this, the Comic Book would not have been possible.

During lockdown, Frances also explained that much of the external support that residents received stopped overnight, which could have seriously impacted their mental health and wellbeing. “The project couldn’t have come at a better time, as we were able to come together, albeit socially-distanced in our communal lounge, to watch the Zoom classes via our big TV. We are all looking forward to seeing the finished comic.”

One of the residents, ‘Jason’ (not his real name) said that he had enjoyed taking part. “None of us knew what it entailed. We came up with a few ideas, not knowing how they would turn out, but seeing the comic come to life was brilliant. I think we all really enjoyed it, as from start to finish there is a bit of us all in it. It was also good to get the everyday stresses, fears and anxieties that fragile recovering addicts like us go through. It is all there,” he said.

“There is also a lot in the comic that could happen to me, so being involved in this with the others, who have been through stuff I haven’t, talking about these things in this way, has definitely helped me in my recovery. It has made me more aware of what could happen, a kind of ‘lightbulb’ moment.”

Alistair Mawhinney from the Housing Executive said; “The Provider Innovation Fund, which we deliver in partnership with the Department for Communities, has funded a range of Supporting People service provider projects across Northern Ireland. This funding aims to innovate and change how these organisations deliver Supporting People services.

“It has been great to hear how the vision of these projects will make improvements and how they will impact some of the most vulnerable in our society who are supported through the programme. This has become even more pronounced during the recent times affected by the Covid19 pandemic.”

Since the formation of the Presbyterian Orphan and Children’s society in 1866, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has played a key role in ministering to the physical needs of people. This approach continues overseas, and though its homes and support units, and the work of its congregations on the ground across Ireland.

Lindsay Conway concluded by saying, “This funding will enable us to do things that we have not been able to do before, which will in turn help different people in different ways, which is why we are very thankful to NIHE. In all that we do to support people in their particular areas of need, we also want to demonstrate Jesus’ love for others, which is also a powerful social witness to the gospel. This funding does just that.”

Photos & images (1) the front page of ‘Recovery Comics’ written and designed by residents of Gray’s Court (2) Supporting People logo (3) support worker Zoe Gray, who managed the project, working on the final designs of the comic with some of the residents (4&5) pages from the comic (6) Willow Brook’s manager, Liz Wilson, putting the finishing touches to painting the shed, that will become - thanks to funding from the Supporting People Programme - a mini gym for Willow Brook’s residents..

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