Cultural Wellbeing Grant Supports Converge’s ‘Winter Warmers’ Project

As part of the launch of York’s Culture Strategy ‘York’s Creative Future’, through the Better Care Fund, Make It York and City of York Council awarded funding of more than £10,000 to seven social and cultural initiatives across the city – with the aim of easing loneliness, isolation and mental ill-health during the winter months.

The grants were set up in recognition of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on people’s wellbeing – through shielding, self-isolation and social distancing.

One project the grant scheme supported was Converge’s Winter Warmers Programme, which was designed to promote connections between participants with mental health problems, providing them with fun opportunities to engage as creatives, performers and audience members. Converge is a collaboration between the NHS and York St John University which focuses on offering educational opportunities to people with mental health problems. Throughout the year they offer high quality free of charge courses on a range of topics, all taught by staff and students to help mental health service users across York. The Winter Warmers Programme was a new project specially curated to help lift spirits and reduce isolation which had been amplified by the Covid restrictions in place over the winter months.

The programme included an open mic night, featuring participants from Converge’s music, theatre and creative writing courses, choir sessions culminating in a Christmas Concert, and a Theatre and Storytelling Performance. They held ‘Connecting to Culture’ Sessions, which were delivered by their support team, facilitating conversations with participants on what opportunities were still accessible to keep them connected to their interests over the winter months. Postal packs were also sent out to participants homes including copies of ‘Creating Writing Heals’, an anthology of Converge Creative Writing.

Matt Harper-Hardcastle (Project Development Lead) said: “What has been really significant about this project is that we have been able to expand our provision to keep our students connected to their creativity and to our wider community of learners. Whether that is attending an online theatre performance, joining a Zoom to discuss what is still accessible in the city or being able to perform in or watch an online concert, we were able to provide an outlet and a perspective that isn’t tainted by COVID, and that is so important to us all right now, but particularly for those with mental health problems.”

Four ‘Connecting to Culture’ sessions were held virtually and in person over the winter months with a total of 43 participants attending. These sessions were designed to be fun and engaging, creating opportunities for conversations and signposting to workshops and activities that can be done from home. This included everything form book recommendations, accessible TV, film and media, as well as giving participants a facilitated space to think of what their ‘next steps’ might be.

Emma McKenzie (Converge/Discovery Hub Team Lead) who ran the sessions said: “The questions were designed to support gentle interaction and help people get to

know each other a little better. This worked really well and ended up acting as a promotion for Converge activities that people can get involved in during early 2021, with many using the sessions to then sign up to workshops and courses, based on what they’d discussed. The main benefits being that people can gain ideas and inspiration from others as a group and continue to stay focused on themes that link to classes and involvement with Converge which are outward looking rather than inward focused.”

One of the participants reflected on how attending the sessions has really sparked a new interest for him:

“It really has become a new found enjoyable interest [art]. It has opened up a whole new world and interest for me. Previously I either liked a painting or I didn’t, never considered what lay behind it. I actually started browsing online Gallery’s, looking for paintings that I liked and captured my interest, and then try researching the reasons that led to it, the whys, who’s, etc.”

An informal and friendly online winter open mic performance also took place, providing opportunities for Converge participants and staff to know each other by sharing music, dance, stories, poems, and much more. A Christmas Concert was streamed via YouTube and showcased performers and the full Communitas Choir which has been watched by 180 people.

During the run up to Christmas, Converge’s Creative Writing classes worked on collating their work into a published anthology. This book, along with paper-based activities was posted out to 175 Converge participants (past and current). Feedback was really positive from those who received this with comments including: ‘It reminded me I’m a part of a community’ and ‘This reminded me I’m not alone.’

A final part of the project took place in February 2021 when Converge hosted an online Playback Theatre performance for all participants, in partnership with Playback Theatre York. Playback Theatre is a form of improvised theatre where audience members can tell their real-life stories and have them spontaneously performed by a team of actors and musicians. Presented on the theme of ‘Moments of Change. Moments of Hope’ this performance gave Converge participants the opportunity to reflect on all that had happened since the start of the COVID pandemic; achievements they are proud of and new opportunities they are looking forward to.

Matt Harper-Hardcastle (Project Development Lead) said: “Throughout this project our goal has been to help reduce isolation and loneliness during the winter months and give participants something fun and creative to enjoy. We are really proud of the variety of the activities we were able to put on and hearing the positive feedback from those who took part on how it has impacted their mental health has been wonderful.”

For more details about the courses that Converge offer for adults who use mental health services visit: www.yorksj.ac.uk/converge/