Voices heard and lessons learnt
BACK in April last year, Ipswich welcomed the launch of a special project aimed at granting the town's residents a more active and informed 'voice'.Here, as the scheme confidently steps into the second year of its existence, Debbie Watson finds out what success it has had – and continues to have – within the community.
By Debbie Watson
BACK in April last year, Ipswich welcomed the launch of a special project aimed at granting the town's residents a more active and informed 'voice'.
Here, as the scheme confidently steps into the second year of its existence, Debbie Watson finds out what success it has had – and continues to have – within the community.
IF you've ever complained that Ipswich can't offer you what you want it to, or that life's a whole lot tougher than you'd like it to be, then chances are, you've not heard about the active involvement of P.C.I.
People at the Centre of Ipswich began its life in April 2001 on the back of a government-led Single Regeneration Budget.
It's foremost aim was to give openings and opportunities to Ipswich people, where previously they might have evaded an entire community.
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It wanted to put communication links where they hadn't been, access facilities that weren't forthcoming, direct enthusiasm and energies where perhaps, before, they had hardly been channelled at all.
And today, one year into the scheme, Ipswich can proudly say that its goals are indeed being met.
Managed by the Ipswich Council for Voluntary Services, there are now a total of three specific P.C.I set-ups throughout the town ward, and collectively they are acting as a source of valuable information and inspiration for people from all walks of life.
Nina Grunberg is the community development worker based at the Bramford Road drop-in centre, and her team is regularly seeing Ipswich residents who had otherwise been at a loss to know where to turn.
"The thing about community services is that, no matter how good they are at what they do, they need be very accessible and very approachable," she said.
"People at the Centre of Ipswich is designed to acknowledge that there are a wealth of helpful sources out there, but that sometimes people need to be able to take a friendly hand and be offered a supported initial introduction to those services."
Each of the three drop-in centres function on that very concept of 'holding out that hand' to the community.
Most days, people can drop in to the centre with a query, for a new perspective on a problem, or even with a suggestion about how their neighbourhood could be better enhanced with a new facility.
"We have all sorts of people come in through these doors – for all sorts of reasons," said Nina from inside her Bramford Road base.
"Sometimes they'll have a cup of tea and a general chat, then other times they will come in with a very direct query about their home, their family, their career or their welfare.
"We can also offer them bite-sized pieces of training here or put them forward for training offered by other bodies on our behalf – all the sorts of things which they may have been too scared to have instigated themselves."
She added: "Our role is to point them in the right direction and then ease them into introductions with the people that can serve them best."
Essentially, PCI is trying to steer people toward more specific counselling and advice, helping them gain training, and even directing them toward funding sources.
It has a wealth of links with community organisations, and regularly has representation from the likes of NACRO and Ipswich's IHAG (Ipswich Housing Action Group) at its branches.
"We've developed a very good network of contacts, which in turn help us in our attempt to provide a successful support system for those who come in to see us," said Nina.
"We have a representative from NACRO (the voluntary organisation working to prevent crime) here at the Bramford Road Centre once a week, as well as liasing with Citizens Advice Bureau, numerous voluntary groups and appropriate specialists."
In particular, the relationship formed between PCI and NACRO is an effective one and wide-ranging.
The weekly representative will visit the centre to cover employment issues, housing problems, and also to talk about debt problems.
Her role essentially emphasises the self-help principles which PCI is trying so desperately to instil in the people that attend its centres.
"We want people to look at the issues they may have now, but also to learn the ways in which they can prevent such problems occurring again," stressed Nina.
"For example, we encourage people to talk about their debt problem with the NACRO representative in order to solve that matter.
"But we also want that person to be taught ways in which they can prevent debt becoming an issue in the future."
Essentially, PCI subscribes to the principle that every man needs not only to be given a fish for today's meal, but also to be taught how to fish and feed themselves in the future.
It is clearly a valuable resource for the people it serves, and all being well, it should very competently lay the foundations for better communication among residents and organisations in the future.
Equally, at a time when Britain is learning the art of 'community spirit' in-keeping with the Jubilee, the attitude of PCI should indeed help Ipswich families to work more closely together for common goals.
"The initiative is very much about the pooling of resources and about people coming together to share their skills and experiences," suggested Nina.
"People come in to the drop-in and start talking about a specific problem they have faced recently, and all of a sudden people are sharing ideas about they handled the same thing.
"It's an effective way of weighing up what the best solutions are, and it ultimately means that the people of Ipswich are helping themselves to help themselves."
Nina readily accepts that there is still something of an 'awareness deficiency' about just what it is that people can gain from PCI, and when and how they should go about approaching the drop-in centres.
Couple that with a strong fear of meeting new organisations and professionals, and thousands of Ipswich people are still potentially missing out on financial advice, human-rights knowledge, and even the very doors which could lead them into new or better employment.
Her hope is that this awareness will continue to grow over the next year of the project, and PCI is certainly doing its best to ensure that this does in fact happen.
"We're very aware of the need to take our service to the people of Ipswich, as well as encouraging them to come to us," explained Nina.
"To help us with that, we're using an Outreach principle and are going to specific organisations and charities in the town to teach them skills which could be advantageous to them.
"We're also making sure that some of the central services – like Citizens Advice – realise just how many people are fearful of crossing the threshold to talk to someone in the first instant. That's where PCI volunteers are more than happy to hold their hand and to make an introduction with them."
PCI's other positive efforts in the art of raising 'community awareness' have included something more topical and sporting.
Volunteer Stuart Ross has led the way in forming a charity five-a-side league, and after a one-off May Day festival tournament, he's busy drumming up interest from charities and organisations who want to take part.
"Football gets everyone excited, so it's the perfect tool to symbolise the 'People at the Centre of Ipswich' working together," he said.
"We already have the generous support of Ipswich Town Football Club in our efforts and are using their training ground for matches, so that's a major step.
"Now we want to get organisations to enter a team in our league, and if they can't finance a move like that – then we can probably help them."
Aside from all its other potential sources of help, finance is indeed another provision with which PCI can assist. It holds a special 'community chest' which can in turn be used to provide valuable grants – where appropriate – to an Ipswich project or group which happens to show great potential.
"The reality is that the people and the organisations of Ipswich are literally bursting with potential," insisted Nina. "That's exactly why we needed a collective point to draw together those town bodies, and to ensure that questions are being answered, skills are being enhanced, and enthusiasm is being tapped.
"PCI is here to achieve those goals, and long after this project comes to an end, hopefully it will have set the wheels in motion and be capable of keeping the community networks working to the advantage of everyone – well in to the future."
PCI has three neighbourhood centres. These are:
59 Austin Street (Call Ipswich 406074)
3 Bramford Road (Call Ipswich 406072)
32-34 Grimwade Street (Call Ipswich 406038)
People at the Centre of Ipswich will be attending the Fair in the Square on Saturday >> between 10am and 4pm.