Nicola Crane, Head of Arts Strategy, Guy's & St Thomas' Charity
Aug 21, 2015
Celebrated science fiction writer Vera Nazarian once said that “Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”
This is a big reason why we’re supporting The Reader Organisation (TRO) – an award-winning national social enterprise which connects people with great literature to improve wellbeing – to bring their brand of ‘reading revolution’ to Lambeth and Southwark.
Through setting up and running small volunteer-led reading groups, we, along with the Maudsley Charity, are supporting TRO to help over 1,700 people in South London (many of whom are particularly vulnerable) to feel more positive, confident and connected to others. As shared reading tackles the preventative determinants of poor health including chronic loneliness, isolation and inactivity, the project also aims to reduce GP visits.
Reading together in South London
Groups are taking place all over South London, at health centres, libraries and other community settings. They’ve become an additional source of support for people to get back on track, pulling them from the margins to the centre of their social existence.
Over 1,300 people have attended at least one reading session. I was one of them recently.
The premise is simple: help people to engage in a shared experience of reading and allow them to connect with other minds, rejoice in a shared passion and find a shelter where their views and opinions are encouraged and validated. For some, who are more used to being side-lined than listened to, coming to the group can make all the difference.
When I first arrive at the session on a crisp Wednesday morning, Princess is keen and friendly, a chatterbox. She talks non-stop and erratically about her favourite music legends. The Jackson brothers seem to occupy a place of honour. However, as her turn arrives to start reading, her focus is on the story and the story alone. The characters come off the page as she eagerly adapts the tone and pitch of her voice to suit each. It transpires later that she grew up with books and has always enjoyed them. “When you leave school, you must never, ever, forget to read books”, someone close once told her. When asked about what she likes the most about the group, she says: “I love reading with people, it’s like acting”.
As the group gets under the skin of ‘Silas Marner’ by George Eliot, the session facilitator, Val, pauses at intervals to reflect on what’s being read and prompt conversations across the table.
I can see pretty quickly why the set-up works. This group is hosted in the welcoming environment of a public library. As people gather and the reading starts, an inviting, non-judgemental atmosphere wraps around them, gathered in a corner of the library, like a protective shield. However, the true value of these encounters is in the power of the shared reading. By deconstructing the joys and perils of the fictional characters, real-life stories start to emerge around the table.
Some, like Uzonna, a retired mental health nurse, remembers passages of her life as a young girl growing up in Nigeria. Others like Maria, who was referred to the group through Lambeth Hospital, enjoys the sharing of “different opinions” and how they “tend to agree at the end”. Hazel enjoys meeting all sorts of different people she wouldn’t normally. Since joining, she and others enjoy the group so much they have swapped the computer lessons they used to attend at the library for this weekly reading gathering. “It is therapy. I do feel relaxed when I go back home, because I talked about something, an experience that happened way back. As you share it with others, you relieve it – so clearly!”, says Maude, another frequent attendee to the group.
Expanding the model
Val was one of the first facilitators to work for TRO in the London region. Our funding allowed her to access advanced training and get support from a peer mentor. Now the success of the support, pioneered in our patch, has led to TRO to extend mentorship to all facilitators nation-wide.
The TRO’s ‘franchise model’ relies on professionals to establish a gathering and train enthusiastic volunteers who will pick up the baton to run the group. Since the project started, 70 new groups have been set up, and 31 are already run by volunteers.
Through the project in South London, TRO is looking to break the historical constraints of their pioneering model, which has been traditionally delivered on demand for specific population groups. The ambition is to prove it can work at scale and to see it widely adopted across the UK.
I left the session feeling revitalised, having reconnected with a piece of literature I read long ago and sharing it with a unique set of people. It was eye-opening to see a group of starkly different individuals loyal to their shared weekly dose of prose, easily drawing similarities between the tribulations of a 19th century weaver and their own with cathartic effect.
As a Charity, our support for arts-based interventions in health is varied and ambitious. We pride ourselves in supporting innovation and questioning established ways of tackling healthcare issues. This often makes measuring the impact of some of the interventions we support rather challenging. Seeing first-hand how our projects work on the ground and speaking to the people benefiting from them is crucial – and a joy.
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