There’s no shame in being poor unless someone shames you for being poor. At Sunshine House Community Centre, we see people as people. Poverty and disadvantage can create barriers that prevent people from accessing opportunities to connect, so we provide a safe and lively environment for people in Wigan to come to for support, to attend an art class or simply to have a chat over lunch in our cafe. Our thriving centre breaks down barriers and, at the same time, tackles issues such as food poverty and unemployment. Too often, services designed to help people in difficult circumstances can leave them without dignity or pride. We refuse to put people in boxes and we’re open to the whole community.
What we do at Sunshine House
We started as a residents’ association in 1996 and things quickly grew from there. On an average Monday, you can walk through our doors to find a writers’ group, a welfare rights drop-in session, a well women group, a game of bingo and a council meeting all taking place under one roof. You’ll be greeted by one of our team, many of whom volunteer for us or become employees following a period of voluntary work.
At Sunshine House, we pride ourselves on adapting to the community’s needs, which means being willing to change and do things differently. Our pantry service is a great example of this. Going without food is an issue for many people who come to our centre, particularly for parents during the school holidays. The pantry service is a fresh approach to donation. Sunshine House receives donations of food and toiletries from supermarkets across Wigan. We ask people to fill in a simple membership form, which then allows them to buy these donated items – usually 10 to 20 items for £1. This is unlike many food banks where people have to declare the items they require through a referral process. Our approach means that people retain a sense of pride while still ensuring that they have access to the items they need.
Our impact on health and wellbeing
Sunshine House offers our community new opportunities and a place to share their ideas, problems and experiences. Our work is centred around people feeling like individuals and understanding that their health really counts. It’s about people coming in and having a laugh – a proper belly laugh – so that they can go home and feel good about themselves. That, to me, is a tonic. The people who come here best sum up why our work is important in their own words:
Liam – ‘You meet so many different people every day. The people here are my support network. I wasn’t in a good place in my life when I came here but this place made my life right – it brought me out of my shell.’
Philip – ‘The place is bustling and full of life. The difference is the people. They make the community centre what it is... It’s unjust to have financial barriers.’
Natalie – ‘It’s somewhere where anyone could come to…from all different parts of society. It’s important that it’s run like a professional cafe. It doesn’t feel second rate – it’s the little touches like the tablecloths and table numbers.’
Mark – ‘I know people all by name. It’s nice to come to work – I do the hours because I enjoy working. It’s like a family.’
Anonymous – ‘It’s about what we stand for. It’s inclusive.’
Wider change in Wigan
The Wigan Deal is the best thing that’s happened to Wigan in the 20 years I’ve been here. It’s an informal agreement between the council and everyone who lives and works here to create a better borough. It’s about the council and the people of Wigan working in partnership, and I think the transformation it’s brought about has been crucial. The council really listens to us and it tells community groups that they matter.
Instead of continually applying for grants, the council are investing in us through a community investment fund. In the past, a community group might apply for a grant to take a group of children to see the Blackpool illuminations. They’d do the same the following year because there was no long-term plan. Now, groups like ours can plan ahead and put a case forward for investment work over the long term. In the past, you might apply for a grant for a project but then realise that the money would be better spent in a different way. With the Wigan Deal, we can phone the council and explain this and they’ll listen and allow us to change course. It all comes down to trust and it really works.
Sunshine House continues to grow – we recently opened a new annexe. The centre is important to me on a personal level as it presents regular challenges, and we all need a challenge. Ultimately, though, it’s about the people who come here. It’s about watching people grow and deal with whatever life throws at them. When you ask members of our community to describe Sunshine House in a few words, they speak of the great company, the atmosphere and the people. I'm glad these things can positively impact health – and this is why our person-centred approach works.
Barbara Nettleton (@BarbaraNettleto) is Chief Community Officer at Sunshine House Community Centre in Wigan