The Unsung Heroes of Dorset

Our Ambassador and current High Sheriff John Young wrote this opinion piece for the November edition of Dorset Magazine. In this article, he is reflecting on how small local community groups make Dorset a better place for us all to live and work in.

John Young 25th October 2017

The Unsung Heroes of Dorset

One of the roles of the High Sheriff is to support the local voluntary sector – Dorset is the home of over 2,300 registered charities which all carry out valuable work to support local people in need. Many residents can name at least a couple of local charities which are very well known at regional and even national level. In this article, however, I would like to give special attention to the smaller charities and volunteer led community groups, the unsung heroes of Dorset, which provide valuable support: rarely paid for their work, with very little in terms of donations – they help build thriving local communities. In fact, there are just over 4,600 of these in Dorset – double the number of registered charities!

I was introduced to local community groups and smaller charities when I joined Dorset Community Foundation (DCF) as an Ambassador in 2015. DCF’s role is to inspire philanthropy, local giving and to channel it across Dorset to support those most in need. Our county is often seen as very wealthy, but there is a lot of disadvantage – 13 areas in Dorset fall within the 20% most deprived nationally. Just a stone throw away from Sandbanks, in parts of Poole, over 50 % of children live in poverty. Moreover, many move to Dorset to retire and enjoy the sun and sea, however it is shocking that every year hundreds of older people die because they cannot afford to heat their homes. When you look at it from this angle it is not very surprising that there are so many support groups.

The DCF supports the smaller charities and community groups which help vulnerable residents, they raise and then distribute donations – from local people to local people. The support they offer is often channelled by these small charities and community groups that make all the difference…

I was very lucky to see first-hand how donations raised by the DCF and distributed to smaller groups make a difference locally. Earlier in the year I joined them on their Seeing is Believing tour where friends of the DCF visit funded projects. As I was driving down to Boscombe to visit the first funded project – Vita Nova, I did not know what to expect. Later on, as we were led by David Walker, the sole employee of the small charity, up a tiny dark corridor, I could hear the sound of a guitar and distant voices in the background. David started by explaining: ‘I’m an alcoholic who hasn’t used for 10 years and also a former client of Vita Nova who now runs the charity’. He went on to elaborate that most volunteers who support him are current and former clients and are an integral part of the day to day activities of the group – running music and drama workshops for people with alcohol and drug addiction.

The lack of statutory funding and the constant cycle of writing bids to numerous trusts has not put David off being very ambitious. Vita Nova was originally set up to work with people in recovery from addiction by introducing them to the arts as a way of maintaining their abstinence. Over the years, they have grown to provide training in local schools and they also provide consultation for NHS staff – ‘because we know what addiction feels like’. David also wants to set up mental health workshops as he finds most of the people Vita Nova supports have an underlying mental health problem – but he needs to raise more money first.

Driving to the second location in Poole where we were going to meet volunteers and beneficiaries of the second Dorset Community Foundation funded project got me thinking about David and the difference his efforts are making locally. A former addict himself, he is now the master of multitasking – having to raise money, deliver projects and draw plans for expansion. I would not forget the glimmer of pride in his eyes when he was telling us about the success story of one of the women who benefitted from Vita Nova’s support: ‘She made a name for herself as a performer of her own work and has appeared at Battersea Arts Centre, the Young Vic and numerous festivals.’

In Poole, we met volunteers and beneficiaries of the newly established Poole Men’s Shed. The Foundation funded the group to help them deal with the growing demand for services. What could be only described as a modern ‘man cave’ where retired men meet, socialise and enjoy community activities whilst working on different craft projects in the ‘shed’ is a brilliant way to combat social isolation many men experience after they retire and ‘stop feeling useful’.

Based at the Limelights Youth Centre they have struck a unique deal where they maintain the building instead of rent. However, the ‘shed’, where they build planters, bird cages and other creations ‘to benefit other charities and the local community’ in one of the garages, is much too small to for the 100+ members – and there are many more waiting to join….

The project is completely volunteer led and recently the group has even started accepting referrals from local GP surgeries. Ian, the Chairman of the group explained: ‘We have older men joining us from Wimborne, Winton and other places – we need a bigger shed and are appealing to the council and local businesses to provide us with the space.’

These are just two examples of the great work of small charities and community groups – I’m sure I’m yet to meet many more during my time as a High Sheriff and as part of my involvement with Dorset Community Foundation. There is something so inspiring about these men and women, the driving force behind community projects, which make our county a better place for us all.

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