Health For All marks 25th anniversary

Health For All has been working to help communities help themselves for 25 years in South Leeds. I talked to Chief Executive Pat McGeever about the organisation’s journey.

Today Health For All run numerous services from five centres across South Leeds, but it all started 25 years ago in an attic office Beeston.

Pat McGeever with Hilary Benn MP

Pat McGeever was the first member of staff for what was originally called South Leeds Health For All and worked out of the Asha Neighbouhood Project in Beeston. The plan was to follow up the World Health Organisation’s initiative to improve health through tackling the many issues that affect a person’s health.

“For example” she explains “a woman may take her baby to the doctor for a chest infection, but the problem is that they live in damp housing. Or she may go with anxiety, but it’s being caused by domestic violence.”

The project started work by researching unmet needs in the area by talking to people about their problems. Pat reels off a list of early reports: the needs of homeless families living at Brett Gardens; older people in Holbeck; young people tackling bullying at Middleton Park High School; and reclaiming Cross Flatts Park.

“It’s interesting because you can trace back the services we run today to those early days. For example we were asked to help set up a Clients Committee for the adults with learning difficulties using the Moor End Training Centre. That led to SLATE who are now independent of us and to The Bridge project at Holbeck Community Centre.”

I ask her what she’s most proud of and she talks about the organisation’s success in meeting needs through small community support groups.

“What people need is a place to go; people to meet; and things to do. It’s very simple really. But by breaking down isolation you can achieve so much. Happier people are healthier people.”

“I’m proud that we are can do organisation. A young Chinese woman knocked on the door of Beeston village Community Centre and asked if she could start a group there. Toshal, the manager said yes immediately. Now there are forty Chinese elders meeting every week doing calligraphy, cooking, singing, all sorts.”

Pat talks about peer support the importance of information.

“If a young mother gets advice about bedtime routines, or whatever from another young mum, she’s much more likely to listen to it than if she’s told by a professional. It’s not a criticism of professionals it’s just the way it is. So a mum’s group works on different levels: breaking isolation, creating friendships, spreading information. It’s a virtuous circle.”

Health For all has always followed a community development approach

“People within a situation are the real experts and you ignore them at your peril! We’ve always tried to engage with people, respect them and their experiences.”

Health For All’s base in Middleton

Pat comes back to the small group approach.

“Our groups run year after year on a pittance, but they don’t need much, they are very cost effective. They need a room, refreshments, maybe transport costs, maybe a tutor. Their strength is that they’re run by volunteers and that makes them sustainable. I’ve always said Health For All runs on biscuits and bus tickets, if you can provide those the group can function.”

Health For All’s 25th anniversary celebrations will also be centred on the small groups that make up the organisation’s membership. Pat also hopes that they might go back to there roots with some new research about unmet needs and new emerging communities of interest in the area.

Looking ahead to the future Pat talks about “challenging times” and cuts to funding just when people’s needs are getting greater.

“We need make best use of our resources and that brings me back to volunteer led groups. They have impacts way beyond there actual activity. Think about Friends of Middleton Park and they’ve acted as a catalyst to turn the park around. In turn more people use it, benefit from it.”

“Health For All has achieved what it’s achieved by working with other people, other organisations, we haven’t done it by ourselves.”

“I can honestly say it’s been a privilege and honour to work in South Leeds. It’s such an exciting place, with so much going on. It’s kept me engaged for 25 years, there’s certainly not been a day when I’ve been bored!”