Beyond your own needs

In this latest guest post, Wendy Smithers of It’s Not Your Birthday But asks what happens to our sense of place if we consider the parts we haven’t yet reached.

It’s only natural that we develop a sense of place based on our interests, networks and needs. Whether that’s joining a running club, making friends with other parents at our child’s school or getting to know our local traders, communication tends to develop in areas of need and awareness.  Relationships develop as a result. People know our name, what our children will or won’t eat for tea, how we like our coffee, what bus or train we catch each day. This builds a sense of community. A sense of being noticed and known. As human beings that makes us feel good and helps develop our own unique sense of place. What happens to our sense of place though if we go beyond our own areas of need and awareness? Have you really looked at what else is in ‘your’ place? Most neighbourhoods have care homes, schools and sheltered housing. Others have prisons, hospices, hospitals or colleges. What happens if we go to the places where we have no need to be in our community? Or talk to people we have no need to?

It’s Not Your Birthday But… is a not-for-profit initiative to get different people in a community together, who would not otherwise meet, through writing. In the digital age, where everyone sees and shares everything, we’re championing the power of a postcard, card or letter to bring joy to and connect with another human being. So far we’ve paired secondary school students with residents in two care homes as pen pals. The writing workshops, in both settings, are facilitated by an artist who encourages the pen pals to be creative and confident with their words. At the end of the workshop programme, the two groups meet at a tea party. As well as building their own unique friendship through letters, the young people get to go inside a care home that they may walk past every day without knowing what goes on inside there or who lives there. The older people get to build a new friendship with someone from  a different generation, something that is quite hard to do if you live in a residential care home. Whether it’s the older or the younger pen pals, both gain knowledge and experience, both gain from realising they’ve helped someone else, whether it’s through sharing life lessons, connecting over a common interest or making someone belly laugh until they cry. Through one of our pen pal pairings, Ruby was surprised to discover her schools’ current focus on maintaining a required skirt length was also an issue for her pen pal Jean – over eighty years ago in the 1930s!

In another programme later this year, funded by the Youth Social Action Fund, we’re encouraging a group of 15 and 16 year olds to build connections through letters with a local day centre. By encouraging empathy and awareness, on both sides, we aim to build connections so that each part of our place intersects and we’re not a community of people living in their own separate parts of it.

Have you ever visited your local hospice? Local prison or young offenders institute? If not, what do you imagine it’s like? As one hospice day patient commented, ‘People are nervous about coming in here but we’re just human beings and we’re not dying today. It’s just another day, same as for everyone, but we try and make it a good day.’ Our programme that paired Year 7 pen pals with hospice patients saw one pairing exchange artworks as both were avid and talented artists. All hospice patients commented on how good it made them feel to tell their own stories to an eager listener and to offer life advice to a younger person who really appreciated it. It’s a basic human need to want to be useful and help others, even at the end of life when others are continuously helping you. On another project at our local YOI we work with young men aged 18-21 to tell their own stories through words and letters. We’re planning to share their work with friends and family in the visitor centre and the local library to give some insight into what their place feels like to live in and show they’ve used their imaginations and creativity to create other settings that they might one day call their place.

By building connections with other parts of our community we can deepen and extend our sense of place. We can feel an even greater sense of belonging because we’re not just cherry picking the parts we need but actively engaging with the parts where the lives and experience of others may enrich our own or offer us new insights.

Last week we ran a workshop with ten residents at an Assisted Living home. One of the residents was joined by her daughter who had recently visited Auschwitz and wanted to write about it because she could think of nothing else. Her eloquent words described the horror but also her need to know how this could have happened. Quite by coincidence, the local secondary school will take 40 Year 10 students on the same trip in December. With permission, her words were shared with the school. The teachers felt the observations she made and the questions she raised would provide a great stimulus for the students. Her words will be shared with all the young travellers as they start their journey to Poland. So the words written by one generous traveller in our community will inspire and stimulate the minds of forty 14 and 15 year olds she has never met but now has a connection to.

So next time you’re thinking about your place and what it means to you, consider the parts you haven’t yet reached. Chances are by giving even just one hour of your time in a new place in your community you’ll gain more than you give, learn something new and have an even stronger sense of your place.

Wendy Smithers works as both an Arts Producer and an Arts & Heritage Fundraising Consultant. She provides specialist support to a range of arts and heritage organisations across all types of fundraising.   Follow @INYBB_