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When artist Grayson Perry set a challenge for people to create works on the theme of food for his C4 TV series, local artist Lesley Woolvine decided to focus on what has been happening at the centre.
“I knew they distributed food amongst the most vulnerable and isolated people so asked if I could go along and visit manager Marie and Debbie at the centre,” explains Lesley. “I took some photos, including one of Debbie in her mask, and created a piece of artwork called ‘Debbie and the Food Bank’.”
Out of thousands of entries, Lesley’s colourful work was picked out and she appeared on the show alongside Debbie to be interviewed by Grayson.
‘Debbie and the Food Bank’ will now feature in an exhibition of Grayson’s Art Club alongside others chosen by the Turner Prize-winning artist.
Centre manager Marie Savin says they were thrilled to be told the good news and to have the chance to appear on C4 and highlight the role neighbourhood centres are playing in difficult times.
“They got in touch with us a week before the episode went out and we were really surprised but obviously very pleased for Lesley and keen to get involved,” she says.
“In our building we’ve got some pieces of art that we’ve done with the children which makes it really colourful and I think Lesley themed her artwork on that.
“It’s so bright and cheerful so it sums of what we try and do here. It’s been an awful 12 months for so many people, but there’s no sadness in the picture and that reflects us because any opportunity we get to bring happiness to people we take it.”
Marie says the support that Netherton Park Neighbourhood Centre provides has been very much needed since Covid hit in March last year.
In fact, she’s never seen such a demand for help as more and more people have lost their jobs and are finding it tough to cope.
“We’ve been doing our clothing exchange for a long time, it’s part of a project called Changing Lives on Your Doorstep, so people drop off everything to us including bedding and towels.
“But once the virus happened we saw how much harder it got for a lot of people. It’s not just people on benefits, it’s people on low pay and those who’ve been furloughed and are struggling to survive on 20% reduced wages, as well as people who’ve been made redundant and are finding it hard to get work.
“Before the restrictions came in, we had after school clubs, youth projects, bingo sessions, all kinds of activities going on in the building, but then when March came I thought, what can we do now? We couldn’t just leave people with nothing. We didn’t know whether we could carry on but I felt like we needed to.”
Funding allowed the centre to keep going with crisis intervention, employing family support workers including Debbie, and welfare checks on the elderly and vulnerable families.
And they found other ways of reaching all ages in the community too including setting up a Garden Gate Project to doorstep drop off cooked meals in a socially-distanced way, and using a few abandoned trollies they found around the estate to deliver food to families and activity packs for kids.
“On VE Day normally we’d have had a big party on the field for everybody but obviously we couldn’t do that so we all got dressed up, we had wartime music blasting out and we made up paper bags of sweets and drinks for the children. The older people loved it as well, it just cheered everyone up.”
When they realised just how much people were struggling to make ends meet, they used funding to buy food which meant they could make up emergency hampers which included cleaning and personal hygiene products.
It was the food side of their work which Lesley highlighted and which will now feature in Grayson’s Art Club exhibition once the current series ends.
But, stresses Marie, food is only one part of what they do. “Engagement with the community has been the thing people have benefited from most because that loneliness and lack of communication really does have a big effect on people,” she says.
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