From meeting on park benches to its own growing town HQ - the rise of Doncaster's Wellness Centre

It’s 10 years since a disillusioned Kelly Hicks quit her job as a social worker.

Thursday, 3rd October 2019, 9:53 am

She was unhappy with the way social work was going, so she resigned from the post at Doncaster Council with no job to go to.

It may have meant times were tough for her – but with the time she then had available, she went about setting up a group to help Doncaster residents suffering from social problems such as mental health issues.

Two years later, she won a national social worker of the year award for her scheme, and now it is growing and growing.

Peer Supporters pictured at the Wellness Centre, in Doncaster. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-27-08-19-WellnessCentre-5

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She set up a peer support group under the name the People Focused Group. Initially it met at people’s homes, or event around park benches – then they opened up The Wellness Centre on Montrose Avenue Intake.

Hundreds are now involved with the group, with dozens attending the centre each day. The idea is to help people – but not through medicine.

While doctors may be able to prescribe pills for some things, PFG provides other types of help – it gives its users a sense of purpose and self-value, and provides companionship and support for people who may otherwise be left on their own.

After meeting for some time at the St Peter in Chains Church on Chequer Road, the group has been at its current base since 2013, and is currently looking to expand into the next building, as part of a move to create a facility that would be able to help people outside conventional working hours.

Paul Craft, Claire Coney, Mark Bentley, Darron Heads and Tess Heavisides, pictured in the PFG Community garden project. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-27-08-19-WellnessCentre-2

Kelly said: “Leaving my job as a social worker was a huge thing to do. I lost my income and my colleagues and for the first couple of years, my income went to finance the group. I did other jobs part time in the beginning.

“When we moved into our our site in 2013, it was a big thing for us.

“We are now expanding. We’re securing the lease on the property, and we’re hoping next door will be able to help people in crisis situations. Most mental health crises happen at night or at the weekend – that is when people need support but there is the least available.

“Sometimes it is unfair to label people, but it an be really normal to feel sad and low at times, maybe due to a loss or a bereavement. You don’t have to medicalise that sort of thing.

There are 1,700 people now on the organisation’s Facebook group and they believe they have around 600 core members.

Rather than paid staff or volunteers, members look after each other, as ‘peer support’, and pledge to give and receive that backing.

They meet daily and talk, sharing jobs at the centre, such as cooking and cleaning. They meet up for a Sunday lunch at the weekend, because that is seen as a time when people can feel lonely.

They also go on trips to the seaside together. And its members now have a football team which plays in local tournaments.

Among those who has joined the group is Glyn Butcher. He has been involved in mental health services since he was 18. He cared for his mother from the age of 11, and went on to have diagnoses including schizphrenia, bipolar disorder, and more recently unstable personality disorder.

But at the PFG, there are no labels – he is just Glyn.

He said: “I think the main thing is that this group reduces social isolation and loneliness. It gives you a sense of purpose and identity, and the feeling that you’re giving something back into the community.

“There is no age limit and we have people of all ages, right up into their 80s. We have young people, old people, carers, people with learning disabilities, all in one place.

“People here just want to do what everyone else does in the community. There’s no NHS sign or anything like that, and there is no referral process – its an open door.

“I feel I get more help here than I get from mental health professionals – I’m occupied and I don’t have to act out being a problem.

“I’ve got something to get out of bed for and I’m helping the community. Previously I had no self confidence. Now I have a fulfilled life with friends.”

“We don’t ask people what is wrong with them,” said Kelly. “We ask them what they like doing and what skills they can bring.”

Graham Keeton, from Intake, also feels he has been helped by the group.

He says he was in a bad place then he first joined. Now aged 53, he was diagnosed with autism aged 38, and had problems with drinking.

Now he runs therapy sessions using plastic snap-together bricks. he also gives speeches on autism, and has helped businesses develop training to help their staff deal with people with his condition.

“The biggest thing for me is that I’m completely accepted here,” he said.

Mum Wendy Robinson is another strong supporter of the group.

The 49-year-old from Scawsby has been coming to the Wellbeing Centre for three years.

She is a carer who looks after a teenage daughter who has mental health issues. And two years ago she felt her own mental health was becoming a problem after her family suffered the loss of her nephew, Lewis Guest, who died after being stabbed in Denaby Main early in 2017.

Wendy said: “I came here because my mental health was going down, and I knew Kelly already.

“So I came here to help, and it has helped me a great deal. If it wasn’t for this place and the people here, I don’t know what I would have done. I feel as though it has saved me. I was asking for help for my daughter, but didn’t get any for myself.”

Mark Bentley has been coming to the group for two years. After working in social care for 20 years, he left i 2007 to run his own business. After working himself into the groups, he split up with his partner. He said he had a break down.

Now he is a regular at the centre, and feels it helps him put his problems behind him. He feels he is treated with empathy, and can repay the support that has been given to him.

Mark has helped create a community garden at the centre, which is used by the group.

Among the younger users of the centre is Nathan Jones, 25, from Conisbrough.

He was referred to the centre after after the unexpected death of his grandfather left him with poor mental health.

Nathan went to the doctors, and was also recommended to try the PFG.

He didn’t attend initially, but when he felt ready, he made his first visit.

“I was a bit apprehensive about it,” he said. “But I spoke to them on the phone ,and it really appealed to me to have something to do during the day, and to meet new people.

“I’ve been coming for two months and it has helped me get into a routine again. I’ve done all sorts of activities, and it has helped me. We even did laser cutting of items which we went on to sell at the wool market.”

There are plans to expand the group into other communities.

Members are keen to get more peers from different backgrounds and help to meet with Muslim leaders to offer the hand of friendship to the Muslim community.

Deputy Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire Akeela Mohammed has visited the group to speak about Islam, and helped arrange a visit to a local mosque.

Mr Butcher said: “The People Focused Group is for everyone, and is about helping everyone, regardess of colour, religion or sexual orientation.. We want to break down barriers here. We celebrate difference.”