Have you ever thought about your community project as a health programme?
For some projects the health benefits are easily seen; such as Siel Bleu, a community-run programme providing exercise classes for older people; or parkrun, a weekly timed run that gets whole families out of the house on a Saturday morning for a healthy and sociable start to the weekend.
But what about other ideas, such as Repair Café, Trade School, The Pop-up Museum, Poetry in the Park or Food Rescue Project? These ideas are designed to address interests or tackle issues that might not seem directly related to health at first glance, but they all play a role in addressing a major health threat: loneliness.
Unfortunately loneliness is well on the road of becoming one of the biggest threats to health in our modern societies, twice as deadly as obesity and more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as Jennifer O’Connel wrote in the Irish Times. American Research shows that since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled. Research has repeatedly shown that social connections are one crucial piece to our health.
The reasons behind this silent epidemic are wide and varying but include emigration, ageing, bereavement, a change in job or lifestyle and our increasingly busy and digital-focussed lives. It’s an issue that affects all ages, in rural and urban settings, and all of us at some point in some way in our lives.
So, if the lack of social relationships makes us unhappy and even physically sick, doesn’t that mean that every community project that brings people together must have a positive impact on people’s health?
Unfortunately the formula is not that easy! Providing the opportunity to meet is the easy piece in this jigsaw. The real challenge lies in actually reaching the people who need new connections the most and building up authentic and meaningful relationships that make them come back.
Can every community meetup be a place of belonging for someone?
We don’t hold the answer to this question, but we’d love to start a discussion with you and hear what your experiences are. When did you feel like your community project had a real impact on creating social connections for someone who wouldn’t have had the same opportunity without it? When did you try to reach out to an older person and it didn’t work out as you hoped, what did you learn? What are you already doing to reach out to people outside your social circle?
We’d love to hear about your experiences to add them to a list of lessons and share them with the wider community. Please comment below or get in touch to tell us your stories ([email protected]).
Here are 8 ideas we have on the issue and we hope can serve as a starting point:
1. Use small one-off events in the neighbourhood as icebreakers
Activities that require a long term commitment right from the start are unlikely to encourage people to come out of their shell initially. Street Feast, a neighbourhood gathering, is a perfect example of an event that provides a very casual setting and gives everyone in the neighborhood a good reason to join, as everyone is invited.
We regularly hear from Street Feasters, about how they met neighbours they didn’t know before and created new bonds, particularly with older people on the street who are living alone, sometimes going through tough times with medical treatment or having lost a spouse. Street Feast events give them a chance to meet people, talk about their situation and are often the start for more regular ongoing connections with neighbours.
It’s always a good time to organise a neighborhood feast, but you could also think about adding small open events to an ongoing community project (such as a GIY group), that allows people a low-barrier sneak peak into what you do and who is involved, and might hopefully gain you a few new members!
2. Ring on doorbells
With Facebook, WhatsApp and Meetup making it so easy to reach a lot of people quickly, we might not always feel the need to think about other, more traditional channels to reach out to people, especially when things are going well.
The problem with those online tools is they don’t reach people beyond existing networks, such as older people in your community who don’t use Facebook or someone who has just moved into the neighborhood. Sometimes you can’t beat knocking on someone’s doors and inviting them personally to join your event, or meetup.
Knocking on doors doesn’t just mean that you reach different people, it also gives a lot of confidence to the person invited, having spoken to you personally and already knowing you. When they come to join your group, they’ll have someone to relate to.
3. Talk to those who know people in the community best
Did you know that doctors sometimes prescribe social contact? Social Prescribing is officially described as “a mechanism for linking people with non-medical sources of support within the community to improve physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.“
GPs or district nurses in rural communities should be your go-to contacts to help you reach out to people who need company most.
In addition to including these potential spokespeople in your network, you could create flyers or brochures about different community projects in your area, and leave them in locations such as doctor surgery waiting rooms and churches.
4. Ask for concrete help & divide up your work
Unless someone is affected by severe physical health issues there is usually something they can do to assist with a project. And may it just be knowledge. You have started an Open Orchard, but don’t know much about fruit tree growing? There might be others in your community who can help.
Contributing something, however little it might be, makes us feel good, more included in a project right away and gives us more reasons to come along.
How about delegating tasks, such as distributing flyers or baking some scones for a meeting, to people who don’t know so many neighbours? PS: Baking for others is good for your health in itself so you should always try to include baking in your projects!
5. Offer pickups – making clear appointments in advance
The monthly Solidarity Dinners in Dublin wouldn’t be possible without the offer to pick up people from Direct Provision Centres, who don’t have any other way to travel. Why don’t we organise pick ups more often, whether it’s to the Saturday Cottage Market or a Poetry in the Park poetry reading event. This can be really useful, especially for older people who depend on some help to get around.
So, when you issue invites to your next event, maybe you could also ask people if they need any help in getting there. Make it a routine and allow people to easily sign up for those pick-ups or start building groups to go to an event together.
6. Make people feel welcomed and included at your meet-ups
How can you do a better job at creating an atmosphere at your community group, that makes people feel welcomed and valued? It can be the little things like welcoming people who come along and introducing yourself right away instead of leaving it to themselves. Also asking a few questions and listening to what their expectations are.
There might also be some ways to design your meetup in a way that makes it easy for people to start talking to each other. What would be a good icebreaker to kick off a GIY meeting?
7. Don’t give up easily
Just because someone said “No thank you“ once, doesn’t necessarily mean “No thank you“ forever. It can also mean: I have to think about it a bit more; I need more time to open up to the idea of getting involved; or I don’t see how I can be of help for this project right now. So, think about ways to keep people posted about what has been happening, new opportunities to get involved and new events. Your offer or ask might suit better at another time.
8. Make someone responsible for reaching out
Can you find a team of volunteers in your community group who are interested in dedicating some time to this topic in particular? A “Chief of Inclusion” per se?! It can be a very rewarding role, so have a think about it.
Please let us know which strategies you use to make sure you reach more people in your community who could benefit from your community project. We’d love to hear about your experiences as well to add them to the list of these lessons and share them with the wider community. Please comment below, on Facebook or get directly in touch to tell us about your ideas or stories. ([email protected])