Community In Focus: Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum

As part of our continuing Communities in Focus series, the ‘Journal’ spoke with General Manager, Aileen McGuinness from the Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum (BBHF), to find out more about the vital work they do in the heart of the city.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 10:04 am
BBHF Born to Run - Jog In The Bog 2020.

The Health Forum offers a range of support and help to people in the local community and throughout the city. The centre takes a holistic approach in order to enhance the health & well-being of all those who take part in programmes.

Funded by the Lottery in 1999 through the New Opportunities Fund, BBHF was one of a series of Healthy Living Centres created both here and in Scotland. The creation of Healthy Living Centres, were a reaction to health evaluations that were done, specifically covering areas of inequality and deprivation.

Aileen herself first came to be involved with the BBHF just over seven years ago when she took on the role of Neighbourhood Health Improvement Project co-ordinator. This work would have involved projects that run through various neighbourhood renewal areas. Aileen would have co-ordinated six or seven of these projects in Derry, Strabane and Limavady. From there , she became Programme Manager, charged with looking after young people’s services and then eventually, she took on the role of General Manager for the centre.

Residents taking part in one of the programmes previously.

As someone who now serves in the community that once raised her, it’s clear that much of Aileen’s own experiences have influenced her career in the community sector. Her passion for the local community burns bright throughout the interview.

“What became apparent to me as a programme manager, is there was very minimal services for young people on the ground, in and around health and well-being,” Aileen told the ‘Journal,’ thinking back to her early days with BBHF.

“I quickly adapted my learning, working with young people in care to give them a voice, let them advocate for themselves. We got Children in Need funding, and part of that was so that young people could get Open College Network (OCN) qualifications to build their confidence. These would be young people who would maybe lack self-confidence and self-esteem.

“Another thing we did was to set up a small advisory group involving young people to get their input in how we deliver health and wellbeing to their peers; Giving those young people a voice that we felt was never really heard before.”

Exercise on the street.

Aileen’s empathy for young people is evident in just how she speaks about them; how she wants them to advocate for themselves as much as possible. Her desire to bring out the best in them is reflected in the working practices of BBHF.

“We recognised that there would be young people out there in the community who could achieve, but didn’t have the confidence or self-esteem to achieve. I recognise myself in that. I would have been one of those young people at school, who just lacked the confidence to actually achieve,” she said.

Aileen said her own experience has shaped the policy and youth services that the centre now has on offer.

“I grew up in the area and I’m from the area so I know what it’s like. I left school without hardly any GCSEs and went back to school as a mature student to complete an access course. From there I did my Degree and Masters. It’s that lived experience that influences the work that we do. I’ve been brought up in a family with a history of community activism and working for people on the ground, that’s probably shaped my pathway into what I am doing. And what makes me so passionate about it as well.”

A group about to set off on their bikes.

Building from the ground up seems to be the ethos of the BBHF and the organisation seems be a part of the community - so much so, that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. How some of the staff there have progressed is just one example of how connected the BBHF is with the community it serves.

“We have people that came into us that were participants in a programme, and then maybe they have done some voluntary work. After that, we have got them trained on the different aspects of what we do, from there they have become paid facilitators or members of staff.

“That’s how we like to grow our staff, by investing in what we have got here, invest in the people that know our communities and learn from them so we can provide services. We have so many success stories of that happening; local people delivering for local people

“Everything we do has that real community feel, and it’s also evident in our services for older people too. We’ve had people who have been referred through our spring social prescribing project, who have then gone on to volunteer here with us to support other older people, ringing our older people on a weekly basis just to keep a check on them making sure that they are doing ok, and keep them up to date.”

The BBHF began a pilot scheme of social prescribing just over five years ago throughout the Derry area. As part of the pilot, the centre linked up with five GP practices in the city.

After the first couple of years, Aileen says they could see how successful it was with older people, in terms of reducing isolation and increasing participation in the community.

“It was identified that people were going to GPs that didn’t necessarily need medical support but needed an emotional connection. The success of the pilot was absolutely amazing,” she said.

Buoyed by the pilot’s early achievement, the BBHF took their project to the Lottery with hopes of expansion. The lottery liked it and were aware of the BBHF’s sister Healthy Living Centres in Scotland carrying out similar pilots, so they suggested a joint project. As a result, BBHF are now the lead organisation in partnership with the Healthy Living Centre Alliance and Scottish Communities for health and well-being, for rolling out the biggest UK based community social prescribing project- a scheme that’s been running now for three years.

With the BBHF on a wave of success, the not-so-small matter of a pandemic was about to test the mettle of organisations like that run by Aileen and the team. No one could have possibly foretold of the impact Covid-19 was to have on the community sector. Like many organisations, BBHF were unsure of how best to proceed, and continue to provide services to the community.

“The worst thing about Covid is that it went against the grain of what we normally do. A lot of services are face-to-face, it’s about social inclusion, then all of a sudden you can’t meet people, you can’t see people. A lot of our people that we work with are older people and people with long term conditions, people in high-risk categories. Our initial thought was: let’s contact everyone that’s been through our services in the last year.

“We started making over a thousand phone calls just to make sure people were ok. Then we continued making about 700 phone calls a week for the first six months. We had a dedicated comms team, making sure we were reaching out and getting the correct message to our service users. The work of the staff was so commendable. Not only did the centre stay involved and connected with their existing service users but it also allowed them to reach new people.”

Aileen spoke of the dedicated work of the BBHF team throughout lockdown and also raised concerns about the provision of services are we emerge from the pandemic. Especially those services centred around mental health.

“I think there is a concern out there, that once we come out of Covid, our services are going to be flooded. Throughout Covid we’ve already seen a 100% increase in referrals for our mental health services. We get no funding whatsoever for mental health services so a lot of our services exist as a result of our own fundraising. And it’s so difficult to fundraise at present.”

Aileen also talked about the importance of building relationships and working with partners to help deliver services. Just before Covid started, the BBHF struck up a partnership with O’Neill’s sportswear for their annual ‘Jog in the Bog’ event. By supplying the tee shirts, Aileen says that all the money raised could go directly to mental health services. She also spoke highly of other partnerships such as ARC fitness which supports individuals in their recovery from addiction.

“Having these kinds of partnerships are a blessing,” she said. “That’s how we like to work. It’s about enhancing people in the community, but also enhancing organisations out there too. Any way we can help bring organisations along, we’ll always try to do that as well. It’s not about, how big can you grow, but how many people can you bring along with you.”

The lessons of the pandemic seem to be at the forefront of Aileen’s mind and if anything, the team at BBHF seem positively determined, to push things forward for the community’s sake.

“If Covid has taught us anything, or highlighted anything, it’s the inequalities - it hit the most vulnerable areas of our communities; the most vulnerable people so it’s a wake up call for government here. Invest in your communities. Make sure there are services for young people, for older people and let’s stop sticking a plaster over things.

“Let’s everybody get together and pool resources and have better outcomes for people on the streets, in schools, in hospitals, and in community centres. More joined-up working will be my approach moving forward and coming out of this.”