The St James Centre is one of the remaining vestiges in Normanton of the Derby Pride scheme of the early 90s which created the modern Pride Park complex. An opportunity to regenerate this deprived area of the City perhaps was lost, or, alternatively, by accident, or by visionary inspiration, the building of this community resource has proven to be a more valuable asset to this area, than one might have imagined.
Today, the building is owned by a charity of the same name, and is an established organization within the City and a prominent voice, and respected contributor to the voluntary sector. The Centre has about 50 staff, and 15 volunteers, covering the many children and adult clubs that have evolved over the years to support people with various disabilities. They are now the leading provider of specialist clubs in the City.
Janet Tristram and Carla Mathurin are the driving forces behind the clubs as well as other community development schemes managed through St James. I spoke with both of them to understand more about what motivates them, and inspires their continued dedication to this community work.
The Centre started from modest beginnings as a provider of clubs for disabled children, and has now risen to 8 being delivered every week covering sports, arts, younger children “minis”, 1:1, disabled, and many others. All were born to support a need identified by the community. These are not profitable ventures but ones that fill a gap and satisfy a need, and are, in many cases, established in the mainstream as contracted services – such is their popularity and importance to helping the vulnerable.
The children’s club only catered for young people up to the age of 18, and they saw a real problem in the community for those who had left school, but were unable to find work due to their disability. It was decided to launch an adult section for 18-25s called “Moving On”. This also spawned “Moving Ahead” which provided 1:1 session with social events, and “Moving Forwards” which is a Day Opportunities Centre for 18-35 year olds. The most critically valuable aspect of all of these programmes is working with people to provide them with experiences, opportunities, fun, and a positive future in ways that would never have been available to them otherwise. The post-school period could easily be just long dark days, which could become isolating, and depressing, as the scope for meeting new people can be severely diminished. They begin to lose confidence, and then start to suffer significant mental health problems. Carla’s philosophy around these programmes, is to work with the young people so that they can make positive steps in their lives to match their aspirations.
Carla recalls, how parents often became emotional when asked what they wanted for their children – it seems that nobody had bothered to ask them before
“I asked them ( the young people) what they would like to do in the future – I thought they might say ballerina, pilot etc but most just said “I want to be married with a couple of kids, a dog and a nice house”…it was nothing extraordinary, and sensible and quite achievable – in the main they had never been asked what they really wanted. For them life is defined not by a job…but what their life would look like.”
In addition to the many activities within the Centre, Carla organizes trips out. These range from rock festivals, pub socials, roller skating, climbing walls, stadium tours, pantomime and many more. In many ways, all very ordinary, and that is the point. It facilitates an ordinariness that gives them a sense of belonging, and togetherness, which connects them with friends who take doing such things for granted.
In addition to the established clubs, Janet and Carla, develop other ideas based on their knowledge of the community and a reading of the sorts of topical issues that are important to people in the neighbourhood. Occasionally people will come to them with ideas, and they think how they can nurture the concept bringing into play a community development angle. People are always very sceptical as to whether what they want to do can be easily implemented. They expect that Council bureaucracy will stifle any initial optimism.
Fortunately both Janet and Carla are two women who rarely take “no” for an answer, and have sculptured the art of bringing to life, many unlikely concepts. Janet recalls an occasaion when a group of lads mentioned to her about setting up a football club in Normanton. Although Janet would not claim to be a closet football manager, she could see how the launch of a team could help with cohesion within the community, particularly if the team could cross cultures. When she asked the lads if they had any experience of running such a club, their unanimous response was “no”…..but they knew they could get a lot of people to join. It seemed like a long shot, especially as they wanted to start in January. It was a risk worth taking, and Janet pulled a bid together. When they launched it, about a 100 youngsters turned up, and from that point it thrived, and was one of their many successful initiatives.
There are many examples like this, and the value to the community is not just the project itself, but also the optimism, and hope it generates through a feeling of empowerment.
“People are actually starting to believe that things can be different in deprived areas and that you can have an idea, get a grant and set something up”
Carla summed it up succinctly:
“The reason why I do my job is I love being able to look at something when there was nothing there, see what people wanted, found the funding, set it up, created it and then, suddenly, see it there. That’s also how I am creative, I can’t draw, write novels, but I can be creative in setting up projects”
“It comes down to the dedication of people, the commitment of people, and the passion of people. You don’t do this because it’s your job, you do it because you are committed to working with communities, with disadvantaged people, you are committed to social justice….you feel that there is a need and they are being overlooked and forgotten and you feel that you need to do something about it. I’m really privileged as I do a job I actually believe in, and not many people get that opportunity”
But the St James Centre is not just about Carla and Janet. They clearly pointed out that the whole team is totally dedicated to their work, and although they all get a lot of satisfaction from supporting the projects, they all put up with a lot in the process – it is hard work. But their focus is highly commendable and conviction based:
“There is no wastage of money, we make every penny count and the money genuinely goes into the people that we are working for, the young people and the children. Those people are the ones’ who need us.”
It is heartening to hear this as too many “charities” in the City seemed to have lost their core purpose, and the reasons for the conditions of their charitable status. It is a principle that makes them one of the leading voluntary organisations in the City.
Carla and Janet will never win prizes for PR, social media, glossy brochures, and other trappings of a quasi-corporate world. They just get on with it. They have not forgotten who they work for.
“What we do seems really simple but actually really makes a difference to people’s lives, and makes them better. It’s about making the most of what we’ve got, and helping other people to make the most of what they’ve got”
Nothing more complicated than that…