ChangeX: projects that have changed lives

Forty per cent of us would like to get involved in improving our communities but never do so. Four people involved in social enterprises explain the benefits – to them and to others

 

This time last year the social-change start-up ChangeX set itself a goal: get 100 people to start community projects in 100 days.

The organisers say that ChangeX is “a platform of proven innovations from across the world”. Their aim is to improve the quality of Irish life by helping people set up new community efforts, from food-growing projects to assistance for the sick or vulnerable to educational initiatives.

They do this primarily through their website, changex.org, which contains templates and advice for people interested in setting up social enterprises.

ChangeX marginally exceeded its target, although the organisers say it would have been far more successful had it not been for one big roadblock: once the social entrepreneurs (“starters”) had set up their projects, they had difficulty building a team of volunteers (“joiners”) to help run them.

To remedy this, on Tuesday they launched their latest recruitment venture: ChangeX 2016. The goal: sign up 2,016 new starters or joiners in 100 days.

Paul O’Hara, ChangeX’s founder and chief executive, says it is not an overly ambitious goal. “It’s, hopefully, something that’s accessible for everyone,” he says. “Not everyone was going to start a new idea, but [volunteering to help] is pretty doable by most people, though still pretty challenging and time-consuming. Hopefully, by opening it up, it will be of relevance and interest to many more people.”

There are currently 30 project ideas, 250 starters and nearly 2,500 local project groups under the ChangeX banner, with plans to expand into the US and UK this year. Most of these groups existed before ChangeX, but 10 per cent were initiated through the ChangeX system, which has aimed to revive local groups as well as start new ones.

“We thought there was a great opportunity to energise some of those other groups,” O’Hara says. “That’s a big objective of this ChangeX 2016 campaign: to find new starters but also new joiners. No matter what town or village you’re in, there’s going to be one or other of these ideas up and running, and it’s an opportunity to just join.”

Besides finding a team, getting the word out and raising any necessary seed funding were the main problems. The latter issues are addressed by blog posts on the site, and may be the focus of future campaigns, but for the moment O’Hara says the key focus is teamwork.

“ ‘Together We Can’ is our motto,” he says. “As well as being about building this collaborative team, it’s also about the fact that one of the big reasons people [don’t put themselves forward for socially valuable work] is out of fear that it mightn’t work out, or they mightn’t be able to add enough value to the project, or they haven’t found the right thing for them.”

ChangeX says that 5 per cent of the population are “changemakers” who are willing to start something in their community. Another 40 per cent feel a responsibility to effect change but don’t act. Working on that 40 per cent is what will make a difference, according to O’Hara.

“It’s an enormous percentage of the population who have an inclination to do something but who aren’t. We think there’s a big opportunity if we make it easier for people to take that first step, find something they’re passionate about, and line up with other people who share that.

“It’s easier to do it with other people than to do it alone . . . Ten thousand-plus people will benefit from the action of these 2,016 people. It’s nowhere close to our ultimate ambition, but it’s another step on the journey.”

My community project: Fighting Words, Castlebar, Co Mayo

Noreen Walsh had heard about the creative-writing workshops run by Fighting Words, the organisation set up by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love, and was interested in bringing them to her local town, Castlebar, in Co Mayo. But she forgot all about it until ChangeX held a meeting in the town. Together with two other women Walsh met through ChangeX, a group formed a year ago.

Teresa Keane, a journalist, and Laura Killeen, a teacher, brought their skills to running the workshops, and focused on making it a creative environment for children to think about storytelling outside of the classroom setting.

Walsh isn’t a teacher, but what she did know was how difficult it was for her dyslexic son to have confidence in his own abilities while growing up.

“Only for all the encouragement he got from people, he’d never be where he is now,” she says. “He’d have gotten lost somewhere in the system. That’s very personal for me, but we all go into these things for our own reasons.”

They found an illustrator and 12 local volunteers, and the local museum loans them its audiovisual room one day a month to hold the workshops. They decided to focus on schoolchildren, and were trained by the Dublin Fighting Words group before they began approaching schools.

“There was an element of risk, because we weren’t sure how the schools would respond,” Walsh says. “We thought maybe there would be no appetite for it and the children would think it was ridiculous.”

But the children enjoy it, especially as it is run very differently from a traditional classroom. But Walsh emphasises the greater importance of these workshops.

“Everyone gets a kick out of volunteering,” she says, “but it’s even more when you’re volunteering in an area where there’s a need. The Department of Education themselves recognise the need for a stronger focus on literacy.”

Being part of a team has benefited the organisers greatly, Walsh says. “If a person was doing it on their own, it would be much more difficult. It’s not easy to take on something like this, and you nearly feel you’re fighting the system.

“People have to realise we’re not making it up and we’re not telling the teachers they don’t know what they’re talking about. That’s an important part.”

Having found their feet, they now hope to expand to other age groups or include schools with special needs over the coming year. Having taken the leap with the others, Walsh says, she has found the experience enriching.

“Very often people are afraid to take on something. If you’re trying to do something on your own you never really will, because you won’t have the experience other people have. All our volunteers have brought angles and given us viewpoints we wouldn’t have come from ourselves.

My community project: The Green Plan, Mulrany, Co Mayo

In the Green Plan you choose a building in your community and find ways to make it more ecofriendly. For Carol Loftus the building was the community-run tourist office in Mulrany, Co Mayo. In the past 18 months Loftus and her team have reduced its carbon footprint by 74 per cent.

Instead of burning coal in the stove, the office burns rhododendron, which Loftus describes as a “scourge on the west” because of its habit of taking over other plants.

The lighting is now all provided by more energy-efficient LEDs, a recycling area was established, battery-recycling bins were distributed, and water restrictors were put in the sinks in the kitchen and bathroom. A water hippo – essentially a full litre bottle of water – was put in the toilet cistern, to conserve water.

There’s more: a small area behind the office was turned into an insect hotel, to help increase biodiversity, and bird boxes were put up.

“We were quite innovative with some of our changes,” Loftus says. “We came up with unusual things that other communities seem to be interested in now. It’s all about making small changes, and if everyone made a small change it would make a huge difference.”

She had just a few concerns going into the project, having met Neil McCabe, the creator of the Green Plan. “That it mightn’t work or that they might think you’re a bit mad, that they’d think you’re a big tree hugger – those were the only fears I had, really,” she says.

Her main motivations for signing up as a starter were the children and the town itself. The school in Mulrany where Loftus is a part-time secretary is working on completing its sixth of seven green flags. She wants a better future for everyone.

“I was very interested in the environment,” she says. “It’s my thing. I love the kids here, and I just want to make a better life for everybody.

“Where I live is very inspiring. I live in a beautiful area. I’m looking out over Clew Bay and the islands. There are a lot of people who really care here. It’s very encouraging when people feel the same way you do. It’s very easy to get involved.”

Loftus is now looking to expand the scheme beyond the tourist office and has signed up to mentor other groups, to get them set up just as McCabe supported her. “I want to stay involved and keep involved,” she says.

My community project: men’s shed, Morning Star Hostel, Dublin

Frustration led John Bradley to setting up a men’s shed. He volunteers at the Morning Star Hostel for homeless men in Dublin 7. Every day the men have to leave the hostel at 11.30am and can’t return until 5.30pm, so they are often left with few places to go and little to do but walk the streets.

“It’s a long day,” Bradley says. “We’re trying to give them something of a focus in their lives. It would be somewhere for them to go.”

Men’s sheds began as a way to get men talking, usually while carrying out tasks such as fixing or building something. Typically they are community projects, one for each town, but Bradley felt it would be a good fit for the hostel.

After preparing a storage room attached to the hostel as the “shed”, it recently began opening one day a week. It currently has music in the mornings, shows films in the afternoon and makes occasional trips out. There’s a regular group of about 10 men, and the organisers hope to open every day once there’s enough interest.

“Our shed is different to other sheds, because it’s the first one in an enclosed hostel,” Bradley says. “That’s what makes it different – but also a bit more difficult to get started, because you have to win over the trust of the individuals first.”

He is working on it with a colleague, Frank Walsh, who is taking over the project, but ultimately they see signs that the men will take charge of the shed themselves.

“Last week when we were finishing up Frank said, ‘Look: they’re all cleaning up.’ Two lads were sweeping; one was putting the dishes away. It wasn’t something they had to do: it was something they wanted to do and somewhere they wanted to keep clean, and it was theirs. They were making it their own.”

The hardest part was convincing other hostel volunteers that it was a worthwhile project, he says. “It’s run by volunteers, andthe people who work here can be pressed very hard on their time. It takes a long time to convince people it’s the right thing to do.”

Still, the shed serves a need in the community that must be addressed, he says.

“There’s nowhere they can go and sit down and chat to one another, and that’s really what’s badly needed. I couldn’t wait for it to start, and, now that it is, I feel a sense of achievement. This is one of the most important things we can do this year, get the Morning Star men’s shed up and running with full occupancy and good projects in hand.

“If we can get there, that’s an achievement.”

My community project: Mindfulness Matters, Ballina, Co Mayo

Caithriona Carty teaches sixth class at Scoil Íosa in Ballina, Co Mayo. She was initially sceptical about the benefits of mindfulness, but after attending a week-long Mindfulness Matters course run by Derval Dunford she found herself invigorated.

“I thought if it worked to settle me as an adult it’s definitely going to settle the children,” she says. “So I tried it to see how the children would react. There was such a lovely response that I worked it into the timetable as part of SPHE.”

Two other teachers at the school, Bernie McGoldrick and Anne Sheeran, had previous experience with mindfulness, using it to work through stress, and similarly felt it was something that they could share with their students.

All three teachers have noticed a difference in the behaviour of the children in class and towards each other since beginning the programme, a few years ago.

“It definitely helps to settle the children,” says Sheeran. “There are a number of children here who would have attention-deficit disorders, and it gets them to zone in better and to apply themselves to tasks.

“They’re also more aware of the world around them. They’re even kinder to each other; it’s creating a culture of kindness, friendship and openness in the school.”

The mindful moments in the morning and after lunch take only five minutes each, and it’s something the children opt into themselves. Getting them to engage took some time.

“It does take a while for the children to trust each other and feel comfortable,” Carty says. “As part of the mindfulness CDs they ask you to close your eyes, and with children in sixth class they can be self-conscious, and it’s a big ask to ask them to close their eyes and be trusting in a room, and that they will be safe and comfortable.”

The school recently introduced a multisensory room for children with sensory needs, which Carty designed and painted. It’s also being put to use for group mindfulness sessions, with the hope that all children who want to engage in mindfulness will have the opportunity.

McGoldrick says mindfulness is not for every child, or even every teacher, but advises anyone with an interest to try it.

“If it’s a small school where other teachers may not be on board, just try it yourself. Do it in your own classroom and take it from there.”

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