Reasons to be cheerful: staying close to whatever makes us glad to be alive
Guest interview with Stephanie Mitchell, Coordinator at the Belfast Friendship Club for the #NETCharityChamps campaign
Tell us a bit about the Belfast Friendship Club
Belfast Friendship Club (BFC) is a weekly heartbeat in the city, welcoming newcomers into its warm and thriving environment since 2009. Our simple agenda is to host a safe, inclusive and impartial space so that people can relax and form meaningful connections with one another irrespective of all the usual barriers that separate us from one another. Our common humanity comes to the fore and this brings out our best selves.
Perhaps that all sounds too good to be true but, in practice, meaningful connections and friendships develop irrespective of our backgrounds or circumstances, be that migrant worker, unemployed, retiree, asylum seeker or refugee etc. This creates a rich and diverse network leading to many other opportunities and experiences, inspiring loyalty to the club. We are hard-wired for connection, after all, and are led by the members for the members.
Who is the Club for?
We like to say ‘if you’re a person, you’re welcome!’, seeing similarity rather than difference. As a result, BFC has grown beyond all expectation: prior to the pandemic, it attracted 30-60 folk each week from every imaginable background and walk of life. BFC has attracted a body of members, friends and supporters from all over the world, 20-25% of whom are from the UK and Ireland. It offers solidarity as opposed to charity and generates human warming.
How does it all work?
Under normal, non-pandemic, circumstances, we host the meeting at a cafe in a neutral area of the city where newcomers can meet and mix with some of our existing members. Things like the range of games, the craft table and music from our DJ all help, as does free catering, but some folk just want to sit quietly with a cup of coffee which is equally fine. Instead of service users or clients, we simply have members and friends meeting in an atmosphere of respect and equity.
It’s a brilliant idea. How did it start?
It’s a lovely story! Rosa, Imelda and Gita were among many elderly ladies who found themselves housebound in their later years and being cared for by a community nurse. As their lives inevitably touched hers, she learned of their stories as migrants to Belfast in the 1930s and 40s. None had managed to make many friends and she was inspired to think that ‘if only there had been a Belfast Friendship Club’ they could have known and supported each other. Many years later her concept of Belfast Friendship Club was born.
How have you been using your grant from the NET Coronavirus Appeal?
We used the funding in two ways. Once lockdown was announced and we began to consider its implications, connection and wellbeing came into focus pretty quickly. In particular, we wanted to connect our members with each other, with friends and family and with reasons to be cheerful, despite the tide of gloom on the news.
While being online quickly became the accepted new norm for most, this assumed a level of phone/internet credit simply absent for a number of our members. Due to their very limited means, asylum seekers were our members most at risk of digital exclusion. We realised that being online was necessary to stay in touch not just with with one another, but also with the expanding, lockdown-inspired range of other opportunities on offer from BFC. This led to our Keep Talking project.
Keep Talking established a means of remotely topping up phone credit on a monthly basis and NET’s funding enabled us to extend our project until public libraries re-opened and access to free WIFI was restored. Given the sheer simplicity of this scheme, we were humbled by its effect on 50+ lives, judging from the responses we received.
Our weekly BFC feel-good music podcast took off at 8pm on Friday 27th March 2020. This found an immediate and enthusiastic audience due to the professionalism of our host (pictured) and the knowledge of our musical guru. Music plays a central and very popular part of BFC activities/events and the podcast continues to give us a chance to unify around the musical choices, announcements and dedications that usually take place at the club.
The National Emergencies Trust’s funding enabled us to purchase equipment and access software that enhanced the production quality of this podcast, which is an obvious means of including members who cannot physically attend BFC for various reasons. 30 podcasts have been broadcast to date and we’re excited by its future potential!
What useful learnings can you share with others?
Probably two things. Firstly, the significance of simply holding the space since reliable and regular meetings may take on added significance for those whose lives are chaotic, uncertain or subject to fracture (e.g. those seeking asylum). Many of our members are separated from their loved ones and cannot go home but know that BFC can be relied upon to be there at the same time and in the same place. The simple knowledge of our relentless presence can provide reassurance, whether it’s possible to attend or not.
Secondly, first impressions really matter so visible (and invisible) barriers send immediate signals about whether a new space is likely to be right for us. Eleven years on, we continue to work hard at identifying and dismantling these barriers to real inclusion. We say everyone is welcome and we mean it! For more information, see our publication ‘Be the change: a guide to creating safe and inclusive space.’ PDF available at: http://www.belfastfriendshipclub.org/documents/
Discover more stories of #NETCharityChamps here.