COMMUNITY IN FOCUS: ‘We weren’t going to just walk away, even though at the time we were scared too’

When Claire Russell finished her university degree in Belfast, she went on to do a Masters in International Business studies. One of her university placements, involved working with a consultancy firm, who worked closely with community-based groups and projects to secure funding. The work gave her an exposure to the community sector for the first time and the vital role they play in society.

Friday, 30th April 2021, 4:43 pm

Originally from Drumahoe, Claire completed her studies and returned to the North-West, eager to get involved locally. With her background in business, she spent the first few years with the Irish Street Community Centre, in an administrative role. But for the past eight years she has been at the helm as Project-coordinator.

Assessing the needs of the local community and offering help is ‘a priority’ for Claire and the team at Irish Street.

The community centre has been in operation for decades in the Irish Street area. Their building has undergone a remarkable refurbishment in recent years, upgrading the facilities on offer to the local residents.

“The green space outside the centre was only ever used once a year for a bonfire and not really anything else,” Claire told the Journal. “So that space was re-designed and brought back into community use. We have planters and other things that we can use for programmes and a seating area.”

The refurbishment work was carried out courtesy of funding from the Big Lottery Space & Place Programme, which allowed the council-owned, but community managed centre, to re-imagine the surrounding green space. It also allowed for the addition of a car park to bring the site in to community use all year round. Building upgrades also granted the centre an additional second space for programmes as well as increased storage.

Claire was very proud of the range of facilities and services the Irish Street community centre provide for the local area. “We provide a wide-range of programmes for people of all ages, from babies, toddlers, right up to the elderly,” she said. “The different programmes include after-school clubs for primary school age and a senior youth diversionary programme for teenagers. Each week, we would also have programmes involving highland dancing, crochet, oil painting, or patchwork. We have groups for women and men, bingo, curling, and a full programme of physical activity such as Zumba classes two nights a week, as well as sessions of yoga four times a week. The hall is also available to the community to be used for birthday parties. We also host computer classes and provide training classes during different projects, to promote community safety and crime prevention.”

Whilst the centre hosts an abundance of services for local residents both young and old, much of its work is done in conjunction with other community centres and groups in the Waterside.

Claire said: “We would do a lot of cross-community work with other groups such as Hillcrest Trust at Top of the Hill. We’ve just finished a three-year programme of sustained activities that was funded under PEACE IV, and now a similar project is going to commence in September. That’s going to be based on joint-programming and bringing people from the two communities together, that will run up until the opening of the new Waterside Shared Village centre which will be based at the old Clondermott school building. Both ourselves and Hillcrest Trust have been partner organisations as part of Council funding, to come together to make use of a shared pavilion, that we can use for joint-programming to make this interface area, basically one community.”

Claire also spoke of the positive aspects of partnership working in the Waterside. “We are one of the organisations that work under the Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership. There are lots of different groups in Waterside that are represented and we all work together to make sure there is no duplication, to share ideas, and to come together to tackle issues that are specific to the Waterside.”

During Claire’s time at the Irish Street community centre, the biggest highlight for her has been the Waterside Shared Village. In junction with Hillcrest Trust, the centre ran a joint summer scheme for children over three years. Using the resources from Irish street and from Top of the Hill, the scheme saw over 260 participants take part. The kids were split into mixed groups and rotated between each venue.

Assessing and re-assessing the needs of the community is a constant in Claire’s work, to help provide the best possible resources for people in need. “For each individual, you would be taking a whole holistic view, that’s not just based on their health,” Claire said. “Social isolation would be a big issue for us, working with residents who are living alone and maybe feeling isolated. Here in this area, we would have a lot of young families and then a lot of older people, so it’s about tackling those issues for them.”

The Community Centre also provides a sign-posting service for residents who may need some extra help with specific needs that may be beyond the centre’s remit. For example, in the area of housing, the centre works closely with the Housing Executive, for the benefit of residents. Volunteers will also liaise, if necessary, with certain social work teams based locally in GP surgeries. This work may involve helping people get ‘out and about’ in the community and assist them in using the community facilities on offer.

Claire outlined the Irish Street centre’s response over the past year to Covid-19. “There was so much fear, especially among our elderly residents, so the first thing we put in place was a befriending service. We rang those individuals who were isolated because in some cases their families couldn’t even come and visit. The staff and volunteers rang every day and with the help of a local catering company we provided hot meals to those residents.

“From there we also sent out packs for those who were in need. These included diversionary activities, for the older people, such as planters and plants. We then went out and held a competition for the most impressive displays. For the younger kids we had children’s activities packs and packs for older kids as well, just to keep them occupied while they were off school.”

One unexpected consequence of the pandemic, was that Claire and her team found that they were starting to come in contact with people who would never have used the centre’s facilities before.

“I would say about 50% of the people who we supported during the pandemic were people who we weren’t aware of previously, or who just weren’t availing of the services before. We kept in contact with those people and we’re now in the process of starting a mentoring programme so we can work directly with those individuals to put plans in place to identify their needs.”

Another unintended benefit to come from the centre’s Covid response, was the willingness of individuals who volunteered to help. “We had lots of people coming forward to us, asking how could they help. As a result, we were able to generate 16 new volunteers. Right away it was the community sector that took the lead. We were not going to just walk away, and not provide services to the community, even though at the time we were scared ourselves. There were so many people dependent on us, we just couldn’t shut up shop.”

Despite the fear Covid-19 generated, the community team in Irish Street rose to the challenge. Claire considers much of the work the centre does, as mainly ‘preventative,’ and also spoke about the other challenges the community may face moving forward. “As an interface area, coming up to the summer there is always potential for incidents at the interface to occur. Although they have been very much isolated, it’s a matter of keeping on top of that and making sure the good work we have done to date carries through. The work we do with Top of the Hill and other groups in the city is all preventative and is aimed at preventing any incidents from taking place.”

As the city and its communities slowly emerge from lockdown restrictions, Claire says she can’t wait to be back up and running as the centre is ‘a hive of activity’, working behind the scenes to get future plans implemented. Funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund will be used by the group for Centenary of Northern Ireland commemorations. The community centre also plans on running an educational programme for young and elderly people alike. “We have a centenary- themed fun day planned and we are going to host a big conference asking what Northern Ireland means to different people. Hopefully we’ll have participation from groups that wouldn’t normally celebrate the Northern Ireland centenary. We want people to find out how the historical events shaped the Northern Ireland which we now know.”

With no shortage of events and future projects planned, Claire and the team at Irish Street, can’t wait to get back to serving the Waterside community as best it can. In fact, as a valued resource in the community, it never really stopped.