Get Involved: International Day of Charity

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Today is the UN’s International Day of Charity, a day to celebrate the organisations and individuals who help to create real social bonds and inclusive, more resilient societies.

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Poets Don’t Lie – The Reader Volunteer Anthology

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Introducing our latest anthology, Poets Don’t Lie, created by and dedicated to the volunteers who make possible so many of our Shared Reading projects across the UK.
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The Reader at the first National Arts in Health Conference

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”

The Reader at AESOP
Our readers at the first Arts in Health National Conference (credit: AESOP)

A week ago, we took part in the first National Arts in Health conference, hosted by AESOP (Arts and Enterprises with a Social Purpose). Exploring the ways in which the arts can be harnessed to improve the provision of healthcare in the UK, the conference brought together leading thinkers and doers in the arts and health, and The Reader was lucky enough to be selected as only one of three organisations out of twenty eight to showcase in the opening plenary.

It was a truly inspiring day, attended by those including Arts Impact Fund amongst many others, and an honour to be featured alongside other organisations doing fantastic work to improve well-being amongst communities facing physical, mental and emotional difficulties. Our Communications Manager Emily Crawford was there on the day:

Last Friday I had the privilege of witnessing something pretty special.  Three of our reading group members – all of whom had their own very personal journey with The Reader and mental health – stood in front of 500 people at the Southbank Centre and told their stories about how Shared Reading has impacted upon their lives. They actually did a lot more than that – they spoke eloquently and did a spectacular job doing something that would terrify most people. The power of the work we do is seen most through stories like those that our three readers – three of hundreds across the UK – shared, and as I stood backstage was reminded just how important it is. People who at times who have felt utterly alone, disconnected and afraid  were able to take the leap to standing on stage in front of all those people and sharing all of that experience, as well as the huge distance they’ve travelled since then – and what’s more, had the room in complete silence hanging on every word. “I’m sitting here now – as a well person” is one of the lines that still rings in my head.

Our Founder and Director Jane Davis, alongside our readers in that bustling space on Friday, finished our section by sharing William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus. It’s a poem that’s been read in many of our weekly Shared Reading groups and so has a lot of resonance with many of our group members, including the three who shared their own stories. It’s a poem and a performance that led Peter Bazalgette, the chair for Public Health England, to take to the stage afterwards and proclaim that we had just ‘opened his eyes’. It’s a poem that, after practising for this performance, led one of our readers to turn to me and say “I’ve been repeating those lines ever since you gave me this you know, when things get frazzled: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’. It reminds me that I’m in charge of me.”

It was also great to have such a brilliant reaction from attendees of the Conference on Twitter:

Amazing stories of personal transformation by shared reading “There’s a lot of talking in shared reading”

Important also to recognise that group arts projects such as can also help to tackle issues of social isolation

Moving testimonies, simple programme and so effective

A huge congratulations and thanks to our readers for taking part and being such spectacular spokespeople for Shared Reading!

Find out more about the Conference over on the AESOP website: http://www.ae-sop.org/

Linking the arts and Shared Reading with good mental health

The link between the arts and improved mental well-being is one which more professionals and volunteers are experiencing firsthand in the UK, and will be celebrated at the first national Arts in Health Conference and Showcase.

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The Reader Review of 2015

“If this life of ours
Be a good glad thing, why should we make us merry
Because a year of it is gone?”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

P1000516It’s been a year of merriment as well as hard work, development and much Shared Reading around the UK, but before we close the momentous chapter of 2015, we want to take a little look back on just a few of the highlights of the past twelve months at The Reader.

From Liverpool, via Leicestershire, to London – Shared Reading across the country

Our Shared Reading model reaches people of all ages, demographics and settings, and in 2015 we’ve been able to bring Shared Reading to new places, as well as extending it across regions we’re already working in.

In Liverpool, there’s been a strong focus on our projects with children and young people where we’re encouraging a love of reading for pleasure from an early age, along with our partners at City of Readers. We’ve been delighted to help lead the way with reading as an early intervention in nurseries across the city and have ensured that a legacy can continue with little ones, parents and carers by the distribution of 300 Story Time boxes to nurseries and families. Our Off The Page project – our biggest volunteering project to date – started its three-year journey, reaching disadvantaged young people across the city with one-to-one weekly reading sessions that show how fulfilling connecting with books can be. Over in the Wirral, we started a similar project for Looked After Children, funded by Children in Need.

It’s been a big year for new projects in the North West, with Shared Reading coming to Knowsley, Cheshire East and Cheshire West and Chester, with groups for the community, older people living with dementia and carers. In Sheffield we celebrated the last four years of Shared Reading across Sheffield Health and Social Care Trust with a special event, and extended our volunteer-led project with Leicestershire Libraries in Leicester.

In the Southern parts of the country, our London projects went strength to strength with reading for wellbeing across South London, funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and the Maudsley Charity, a new memory loss group in conjunction with Tesco as part of our Barnet project and volunteering opportunities in West London. We brought Shared Reading to Somerset and our Wiltshire project for people living with dementia and memory loss became an award winner.

‘Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet’ – Shared Reading and Events

2015 was another year for wonderful events, many of which took place at our base at Calderstones Mansion. We welcomed Nicolette Jones and Frank Cottrell Boyce for a celebration of the 100 Modern Children’s Classics, hosted a summer spectacular of theatre which included the return of Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour with the classic Romeo and Juliet, brought together literature, art and music with Ad Hoc Creative EXPO and brought together more than a hundred of our group members, volunteers and trustees at an inspiring AGM.

Misty summit reading close upWe joined forces with City of Readers and Beanstalk to bring a day of reading across five locations in Liverpool with Anytime is Storytime in the summer, and brought something very Big to Calderstones in the form of The Big Dig, the first archaeological dig at the park to involve volunteers from the local community. Taking on big challenges was something of a theme this year as our team in North Wales organised the highest ever Shared Reading group at the peak of Mount Snowdon, overcoming all difficulties and perilous weather conditions.

The year rounded off in fine style with the twelfth annual Penny Readings at St George’s Hall. Another sell-out festive extravaganza saw captivating performances from Frank Cottrell Boyce, Maxine Peake and Shaun Evans.

A Year of The Reader – and other Great News

The Reader offered up more literary goodness and thought-provoking pieces throughout 2015, with issues offering contributions and interviews from names including Tim Parks, Ken Loach, Salley Vickers, David Constantine, Bill Bailey and Blake Morrison.

The value of Shared Reading continued to make an impact as we were shortlisted for the Social Enterprise Network Powerful Together Awards and the 2015 Natwest SE100 Awards, along with 21 other organisations in the UK. Our status as a social enterprise doing good for health and wellbeing rose as we were part of a rising contingent in the North West on the SE100 Index; even better news when we’re rapidly expanding our social enterprise work at Calderstones Mansion.

P1000158Our year ended with two big pieces of news that will ensure that our work can reach many more people who will benefit from Shared Reading can continue into the future. In November, we were delighted to continue our partnership with Social Business Trust as they awarded us funding and business support worth £1.5million which will help us to reach 27,000 people by 2018. Earlier this month we were able to secure the future of the International Centre for Reading at Calderstones with a confirmed grant of nearly £2million from Heritage Lottery Fund, rebuilding the future of Calderstones whilst celebrating its past heritage.

All of this made us very happy indeed – very appropriate considering that Jane made the Independent on Sunday’s Happy List this year!

We’re looking forward to the year to come, with two big things on the horizon early on – the launch of The Storybarn and A Little, Aloud With Love, the newest member of the A Little, Aloud anthology series. There’ll be lots more to come, including more stories from our group members and readers, and so as 2016 approaches we’re embracing Lord Tennyson’s outlook:

but Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’…”

From all at The Reader, we wish you a happy and restful festive season.

“It is such a meaningful thing to do”: Volunteering in Barnet

DSC_0028The Reader’s volunteer-led projects in Barnet, North London were our first outside of our base in Merseyside and since their start in 2011 they’ve gone from strength to strength, engaging local people in the pleasure – and often, the power – that comes from shared reading.

Our Barnet volunteer projects focus on reading with community groups, memory loss groups and within care and day centre settings for people living with dementia and their carers. We’re working with Jewish Care, Altogether Better and Comic Relief to enable volunteers to receive training and ongoing support to lead groups in pairs, sustaining the shared reading experience for those who we already read with and bringing it to many more people.

Our volunteers in Barnet are from all walks of life and backgrounds – some have joined us after long careers in healthcare and related settings, some have previous experience with sharing reading. Others have experienced the impacts great literature has had on people they are close to, or just simply have a passion for reading that they want to pass onto others.

Jennifer began her volunteering journey with us after regularly attending a shared reading group with her grandmother. She took part in training and went onto run her own group at the care home she worked at. Her story shows how choosing to volunteer can make a change not only to the lives of those who read, but to volunteers themselves:

“I left school with very poor qualifications, but by having the experience of facilitating in shared reading I was led to a more formal course of learning and have since been able to enrol in a course for serious readers, the Reading in Practice MA. I never imagined I would be working towards earning a degree in my whole life so that is a big surprise and benefit for me. It gave me the confidence to leave full-time employment and ask to be a fully-fledged volunteer shared reading facilitator in a community group at Burnt Oak Library. This is good as I have read a lot more short stories and now we are reading a novel together.

You don’t have to have an English degree or any qualifications to be a shared reading facilitator. You just have to be willing to learn a new craft, and be available once a week, ongoing. You equally share the responsibility of running the group with another shared reading facilitator. There is also the support of a network of other volunteers who are all on the journey of becoming shared reading facilitators. Even the best are still learning. You don’t even have to know that much about poems or books.

From admittedly not having a scrap of appreciation for poetry and an increasing sense of shame for not reading very much at all, I have developed a love for poetry and a desire to read. I can’t wait each week to listen to people reading. It is such a rare thing. I feel I have definitely gained more confidence in public speaking. I have far better conversational skills and am able to quote poems, which makes me sound like I have been reading poetry all my life! It makes me feel really clever. Everyone involved is warm and friendly and it is such a meaningful thing to do.

Side effects of volunteering for The Reader: One day down the line, you may have to buy a bookshelf. It might make you visit the library (or even apply for a library card!). You may read that book you have been ignoring for ages. You may develop a love of poetry. You can talk to others about books and poems without any snobbery or pretence. You may make friends. You may want to run more groups. You may be really surprised at what reading together can create. You will definitely enjoy it.”

Read Jennifer’s story in full on our website.

We are now recruiting for more volunteers to join us in Barnet on our Jewish Care, Altogether Better (reading with community groups/community memory loss groups) and Comic Relief (reading with people living with dementia and their carers) projects. Volunteers will be paired to run shared reading groups, with full training and ongoing support from The Reader.

For more information on these opportunities, please contact Paul Higgins: paulhiggins@thereader.org.uk or call 07985 718744. You can also see our website for further details. 

Sharing reading across South London

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Shared reading in South London (credit: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity)

“I do feel relaxed when I go back home, because I talked about something, an experience that happened way back. As you share it with others, you relive it – so clearly!” – shared reading group member, South London project

Since 2013, The Reader Organisation has been developing a Reading for Wellbeing project across South London, setting up and training volunteers to run shared reading groups all with the purpose of helping to improve the health and wellbeing of over 1,700 people living in the boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth, Lewisham and Croydon. The project was made possible thanks to a three-year funding bid by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and the Maudsley Charity, and has so far seen a total of over 70 groups meeting in a variety of settings, including libraries, health and community centres, schools – and even Tower Bridge!

We’ve been reaching people of all ages, backgrounds and life situations, using great literature on a weekly basis to help improve confidence, create social networks, widen perspectives and offer a sense of belonging to those who have become especially isolated. In some cases, the reading shared has become a preventative tool for people at risk of poor health, with regular attendance at groups aiming to reduce the need to visiting a GP.

Recently Nicola Crane, Head of Arts Strategy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, visited one of the groups within the South London project to get a sense of how shared reading is working first-hand:

“As the group gets under the skin of ‘Silas Marner’ by George Eliot, the session facilitator, Val, pauses at intervals to reflect on what’s being read and prompt conversations across the table.

I can see pretty quickly why the set-up works. This group is hosted in the welcoming environment of a public library. As people gather and the reading starts, an inviting, non-judgemental atmosphere wraps around them, gathered in a corner of the library, like a protective shield. However, the true value of these encounters is in the power of the shared reading. By deconstructing the joys and perils of the fictional characters, real-life stories start to emerge around the table.

Some, like Uzonna, a retired mental health nurse, remembers passages of her life as a young girl growing up in Nigeria. Others like Maria, who was referred to the group through Lambeth Hospital, enjoys the sharing of “different opinions” and how they “tend to agree at the end”. Hazel enjoys meeting all sorts of different people she wouldn’t normally. Since joining, she and others enjoy the group so much they have swapped the computer lessons they used to attend at the library for this weekly reading gathering.

I left the session feeling revitalised, having reconnected with a piece of literature I read long ago and sharing it with a unique set of people. It was eye-opening to see a group of starkly different individuals loyal to their shared weekly dose of prose, easily drawing similarities between the tribulations of a 19th century weaver and their own with cathartic effect.”

Read Nicola’s blog in full on the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity website.

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(credit: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity)

Thanks to the funding from GSTTC and the Maudsley Charity, we have been able to ensure a lasting legacy of the positive wellbeing effects of shared reading in South London. To date, over 30 groups have been taken over by trained volunteers and are proving to be sustainable, with more training planned for the future. The project also includes an ongoing research investigation which will help to determine the impact of the shared reading model on such a wide spectrum of the population at whole.

Here’s to even more shared reading across South London!

Volunteers in the Spotlight

Last week was Volunteers Week, and we had a great week celebrating the efforts and achievements of our many volunteers around the country here on The Reader Online. But we’re happy to report that there were some special goings-on in the offline world too.

Our Barnet Volunteers and Coordinator Paul Higgins with actress Claire Skinner at the Tricycle Theatre, discussing 'The Father'
Our Barnet Volunteers and Coordinator Paul Higgins with actress Claire Skinner at the Tricycle Theatre, discussing ‘The Father’

Over in London, our Barnet Volunteer team enjoyed a trip to the theatre to watch the acclaimed play The Father at the Tricycle Theatre as Volunteers Week started. They were even lucky enough to catch up once the curtain fell with one of the leads of the cast…
Volunteer Claire Sive shares the experience of the night:

Wow! Eleven volunteers from The Reader stepped down from the theatrical roller-coaster which was ‘The Father’ into The Tricycle Theatre bar to gather their equilibrium before being joined by Claire Skinner, Kenneth Cranham’s co-star in this production of Florian Zeller’s 2014 Moliere award-winning play.

The Father, “loosing all my leaves” – as the stage lost all its furniture – and his daughter grapple with extreme pain exposed by unstable fractured narratives, repetitions betraying anxiety underscored by interchanging actors, each scene framed by LED lights that dazzled, accompanied by a piano maddeningly in search of its tune. Skinner alluded to the pauses in the script causing as much concern as the words. Indeed as the stories told by the characters to describe their situations broke down, the emotion drained through the gaps.

The Reader volunteers leading shared reading in dementia settings know how productive those gaps can be to discover new thoughts, meanings and recollections stirred by the texts we bring. It was a privilege and cautionary to viscerally experience the spaces between relatives negotiating family myths, tensions and desires and to renew our respect for our clients, their carers and their families.

Our Admin Assistant Volunteers and Merseyside Volunteer team looking great on camera
Our Admin Assistant Volunteers and Merseyside Volunteer team looking great on camera

Our HQ at Calderstones Mansion House played host to a special lunch last Wednesday celebrating our Admin Assistant volunteers working on the Big Lottery funded Merseyside Volunteer Reader Scheme. A wonderful afternoon was had by all, and Christopher Lynn, one of our Volunteer Assistants on the project, fills us in:

A knees up was the least we could do to thank our office-based Admin Assistant volunteers for all the brilliant work they do week in week out; maintaining and managing resources for our Care Home Readers who share reading with older people across Merseyside. The whole thing was a Reader collaboration, with the café providing a delicious lunch, photographs and gift presentations, as well as being treated to a fascinating tour of the park in the shining sun.

‘At every thought and deed to clear the haze
Out of our eyes, considering only this,
What man, what life, what love, what beauty is,
This is to live and win the final praise’
– extract from ‘Outlook’ by Archibald Lampman

We opened with a shared reading of ‘Outlook’ by Archibald Lampman that inspired many thoughtful contributions and brilliant group discussion. But the poem planted one seed that blossomed into a particularly satisfying comment from one of our longstanding volunteers, L. During our tour through the park she said:

‘It feels goods to be appreciated! It’s like in the poem ‘to win the final praise’; it’s like what The Reader have done today, and also it’s important to praise yourself for all the work you do – that’s the ‘final praise’; to praise yourself. We enjoy volunteering, and The Reader gets something from it too – it works both ways’.

A big thanks goes out once more to our volunteers, and we’re thrilled they’ve been able to share in such memorable experiences.

If you want to find out more about volunteering with us and to see current opportunities, visit our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/working-with-us/volunteering

Volunteers Week: Volunteer Reading in Barnet

“Discovering new literature or re-connecting with familiar material is very enjoyable for the volunteer as well as those in your groups and meeting like-minded fellow volunteers is a real bonus” – Helen Deal, volunteer facilitator, Barnet

“I am always more energised at the end of the sessions that we run and am always glad that I went. Even on those rare Tuesday mornings when I may not feel like going to the group and may have to make myself go – I never regret it!” – Vivian Wood, volunteer facilitator, Barnet

One of our volunteer-led community shared reading groups in Burnt Oak, Barnet
One of our volunteer-led community shared reading groups in Burnt Oak, Barnet

Volunteer Week 2015 continues, and today we’re visiting our volunteers in London where we’ve been running our volunteer-led project since 2011. In Barnet, our volunteers facilitate shared reading groups and one-on-one sessions with people living with dementia and their carers, as well as reading with whole population groups in care homes, day centres, community centres and libraries across the borough. Our ever-expanding team of volunteers work individually and in pairs to lead groups, bringing the stimulating, imaginative and enjoyable experiences that come from literature back into the lives of people with conditions that may be considered limiting.

Week on week the groups can prove insightful and challenging in different ways, yet our Barnet volunteers find numerous highlights which are not only testament to the power of reading but also how rewarding volunteering in these settings can be:

“Only a couple of members in my advanced dementia group are able to join in and read coherently, but I like that other individuals are clearly able to follow the poems and seem attentive to the words and the sounds of them. One of the members in particular, ‘Margaret’, has a real air of anticipation at the beginning of each session and is always very focused on those reading. Her eyes are very expressive and when we have prompted her she has managed some appropriate responses:  after a poem about sisters she volunteered her sister’s name – ‘Winfred; younger but taller’ – and some poems about friendship lead to another more vocal member of the group, Cecilia, befriending Margaret, taking her hand, asking her to smile, telling her ‘you are a very lucky woman, because so many people love you’. It was very heart-warming and suggests that although most of these group members now have very limited speech, there is still a lot going on inside.” – Helen Deal

“I am still surprised at how beautifully many residents read who may not otherwise be very articulate, pulling out so much meaning and so many feelings from the words. A lady who I thought might have nodded off whilst we were reading The Jabberwocky and were discussing what the creatures might look like, rose from her recumbent position to say, ‘he must be a chatterbox, you know, jabber, jabber…’ and then she seemed to fall back to sleep, rather like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland. Another time a man remarked how in The Magpies by Denis Glover the lines that told the sad story of the couple lay right alongside the funny, crazy noises of the magpies, ‘just like life’. Or the day when after reading three poems about birds a woman said, ‘I hate caged wild birds but you have brought three wild birds into the room and we have heard them sing.’ ” – Claire Sive

In time for Volunteers Week, we have a new group led by volunteers starting in Barnet this week, specifically for people with memory loss and their carers. The Feel Better with a Book group runs weekly at Manor Drive Methodist Church Hall, Whetstone on Thursdays, 10-11.30am.

We’re also recruiting for new volunteers to join the project. Applicants will receive training and ongoing support in their role and will be making a long term commitment to The Reader Organisation and their community. We can only offer this advice, direct from one of our current volunteers, if you’re wondering whether it might be for you:

“Join in and be a group member and experience it live. Go with an open mind and open heart. You need to like and be interested in people – forgive them –not everybody is lovable, but everybody has a story.” – Kate Fulton, volunteer facilitator, Barnet

For further information on volunteering in Barnet, please contact Paul Higgins: paulhiggins@thereader.org.uk or call 07985 718744