The Big Society – this government’s idea for communities to take on more responsibility, become more involved – is nothing new for east Manchester. Across the area dozens of community groups run by enthusiastic volunteers have been established for years. Len Grant meets Methode Nguimby from the African Francophone Integration Project.
Methode Nguimby: "Sometimes I feel like a doctor who is ill himself."
Methode leads me into the office of the African Francophone Integration Project (AFIP) in a building on Bosworth Street in Beswick previously occupied by the Manchester Settlement. They share the premises with a community cafe which this morning is busy serving a late breakfast to a handful of local residents.
Methode is keen to tell me all about the project and how it helps French-speaking asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants who live in, or have just moved to, Manchester.
“Many people arriving here are stressed and disoriented,” he says. “They don’t know the language, have often been given misleading information about what help is available and need some friendly support. The AFIP can give free advice on housing, health, education, benefits and employment as well as encouraging integration with British society, often through music and the arts.”
The emphasis is to get people off benefits and into work. If they are able to work, and currently those claiming asylum are not allowed to earn an income, then Methode and his team help find them a temporary job, maybe cleaning or packing as an introduction to the employment market.
“To begin with this ‘small job’ helps newcomers with the language and builds their confidence. Then we work together on a CV and help them apply for a permanent job with perhaps a retail company.
“For those who are more highly educated we suggest they continue their studies at college. Often qualifications gained back home are not recognised here and our clients have to retrain.”
After only a short while in Methode’s company I can see that he is a very committed individual, happy to spend his energies helping others. But what of him? I’m keen to know more about the man who started this organisation out of his bedroom seven years ago.
Back home in the Republic of Congo he was a hardworking young man who studied history at university. Being a politically active student in a volatile country was not safe and he fled to Britain in 1996 when he was just 18 with not a word of English.
Living in London, he took a number of low paid jobs whilst he learnt English at the local college. “But London was expensive,” he says, “and a friend of mine suggested I try Manchester. At the time I was working as a customer service assistant on the trains and I was easily able to keep my job but be based in a different city. So I came to Manchester.”
Knowing no-one but having saved a little money Methode was lucky. He found a privately-rented house in Salford on his second day in town. “That was 1999 and it was quite easy. Things are different now.”
Having got to know the city Methode was often the fist contact for others coming to Manchester. He would give them advice on where to get advice: an unofficial sign-posting service. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” he says, “I don’t like to see people suffer.”
But before long his good nature was to get him into serious trouble.
“Another man who didn’t know his way around had asked me to drive him to meet friends. He paid for the petrol and I offered to be his personal taxi service for the day. What I didn’t know was he was committing serious fraud whilst I was driving him around and he was arrested. The police thought I was implicated and I was arrested too.”
By this time Methode was married and his wife was expecting their second child.
“This man never owned up to the court that I was innocent – he wouldn’t tell them anything – and we were both jailed. I served half of an 18-month sentence.”
But even in prison Methode continued to study – one wall of this office is covered with certificates gained from numerous training courses – and to help other inmates. “I was interpreting for others,” he recalls, “they used to call on me if they needed a French speaker.”
Once released friends and family encouraged Methode to continue his support work but to make it ‘official’. So, in 2003, the AFIP was born.
“Our first funding came from Manchester City Council,” he says, “ and that was for computers and stationery. Since then we’ve grown with more staff and, after many different premises, with this permanent office base.”
This year the project became a not-for-profit limited company. It’s supported by half a dozen or more agencies and Methode, whose work is entirely voluntary, hopes it will become a registered charity before long.
What is most bizarre about Methode’s story is that despite helping hundreds of other asylum-seekers, refugees and other migrants, Methode himself is still not legally resident in the UK.
“Despite numerous applications and many knock-backs I still don’t have permanent leave to remain,” he says. “I feel like a doctor helping the sick and yet being unwell himself. Our clients assume I’ve been accepted here but because of my criminal record the process is still not resolved. It’s nearly 14 years since I arrived in the UK and I’m still living in a state of uncertainty.”
Len Grant accepts an invitation to take a tour around Clayton Hall.
Clayton Hall: once home to the Byron family and the Chetham brothers
East Manchester continues to amaze me. The diversity of what goes on here and the commitment of local people is astonishing. This last week I found myself taking photographs in Clayton Hall, the 16th century ‘moated’ hall concealed in the middle of the unassuming Clayton Park. Each of four rooms are now decked out in the late Victorian style to give visitors a real taste of history in east Manchester’s most notable historic building.
Come and see the sunken cold store, dining room, kitchen and outside wash house
Yes, I’ve seen this sort of thing before in National Trust properties and in museums run by local councils. But here in Clayton – with the trams lines being re-laid outside on Ashton New Road – this piece of historical restoration has not been put on by a team of full-time curators but by local volunteers from the Friends of Clayton Park.
Over the last couple of years these dedicated volunteers have sympathetically renovated four previously empty rooms into what is now a cultural high spot and an invaluable learning resource for local schools.
Small grants have paid for some of the items – the kitchen range was bought from ebay – but others have been donated by friends and relatives and, since the displays have been open to the public, from visitors supportive of the Friends’ work.
Experience a Victorian kitchen: no fridge or microwave here!
The Grade 2 listed hall is open to the public every third Saturday of the month between 1–4pm (so that’s this Saturday, 20th March) and children are particularly welcome. There’s an ID quiz so youngsters can identify items in each room and plenty of hands-on activities from helping out in the kitchen to ‘ironing’ clothes in the wash house.
As a backdrop to the National Curriculum the Friends are keen to encourage more schools to book visits and use the hall as a teaching resource.
To contact the Friends email email@example.com or ring Manchester Leisure on 0161 231 3090.
The Friends of Clayton Park website
They are out there. In every corner of east Manchester they are giving their time freely, supporting local organisations and, at the same time, learning new skills. Len Grant interviews a couple of the Experience Volunteers.
I’ve probably come across dozens of volunteers at events and in local offices but never actually realised it. They are some of the hundreds of unpaid workers trained and placed by Experience Volunteering, a service for local residents run by the community group, 4CT.
Many take up volunteering as a stepping stone to finding work, others to keep active and make a contribution to their community.
Doris Hardcastle: "I'd recommend it to anyone who's stuck in a rut. It gives you a new lease of life."
I met Doris Hardcastle in a church hall in Clayton where she had been supporting a mental health users’ group. “It’s just a cup of tea and a chat,” she tells me, “but it’s somewhere for people to meet together which is very important.”
Doris, I hear, has been volunteering for many years. She met the Experience Volunteering service some time after her mother died and has been helping in the community ever since.
“I’d been nursing my mother in her own home for eight years,” she says. “She suffered from Alzheimer’s and I promised her she wouldn’t die in hospital. When she passed away in 2000 I nearly had a nervous breakdown, I was in a bad way.
“I’ve changed enormously since then. The volunteering team has been tremendously supportive and it’s given me a lifeline, a new lease of life.”
One of Doris’s first roles was at the East Manchester Festival at the Grange Community Centre as part of the Refugee Week celebrations. “I’ve also been a receptionist, helped at the Seeds of the East festival in the summer, and next week I’ll be at the stadium for the JobCity recruitment fair.”
It seems to me that volunteering works on so many levels. For Doris it’s about keeping active and building up confidence. New volunteers to the programme are invited onto short courses and taught communication skills, customer service and teamwork, but it’s that all-important confidence building which is central to the work placement.
Tony Pearson: "I enjoy passing on my skills."
Tony Pearson says he hit ‘rock bottom’ after a trio of personal setbacks. A relationship breakdown, redundancy from a managerial position with a charity and the death of his own mother all contributed to a depression from which is he only now recovering.
“I’ve been able to keep my skills fresh with the volunteering,” he says. “It’s kept my head clear and I’m more focussed now.”
Tony is not new to volunteering. Throughout his varied career he has used his skills to help others. During his 20s he played in a band and later worked as a Community Service Volunteer in hospital radio, trained in radio production, and then trained others. “My heart is still in radio,” he says, “and I enjoy passing on my skills.”
Since he’s been with Experience Volunteering he’s helped out in their office with administration, marketing and even some of the funding bids. He’s also developed his love of photography and staged an exhibition of his work at the Grange in Beswick. “I took up photography after my mum died. It’s been a good distraction. I’d like to be able to make a living from it but realistically it’ll stay as a hobby as I look for a job in IT training.”
Within months Tony will have completed a course which allows him to apply for teaching assistant posts. “I’d like to be a full-time adult tutor in IT and Photoshop,” he says. “Already I’ve been offered a volunteer placement at The Manchester College which is one step closer to getting a full-time job. Since I’ve had the bad times, I haven’t had the breaks. You just need some luck.”
East Manchester residents interested in volunteering should call Sue or John on 0161 230 1436. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.experiencevolunteering.com