An Oasis at the heart of Antrim

STANDING on Antrim’s High Street, you’d be hard pushed to pick out the location of Oasis Caring In Action’s Community Support Hub.

But, once discovered (up an entry close to the bingo hall) and inside its front door, you’ll be treated to a warm welcome, no matter your age, background or where you are from.

The project is an offshoot of the East Belfast charity, aimed at ‘transforming lives, transforming communities and transforming Antrim through a diverse portfolio of youth, family and community support programmes’.

It is perhaps best known for administering the town’s food bank, with a distribution centre on High Street and satellite points in Ballycraigy, Stiles and Greystone with a new outlet to open soon in Rathenraw.

Centre manager Jennifer Todd, who has been with the organisation for four years, says that foodbank use has doubled in recent months due to the cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices.

Jennifer is keen to point out that despite what some critics may think, foodbank users can have one initial visit and then must be signposted by a partner agency, such as a GP.

“They have to be signed off by a referral, it is not a case of people walking in and getting free food, our users are in genuine need,” she said.

“We also link up with the Power NI and other businesses to provide vouchers for electricity, fuel and meat.

“We are the stewards of the money and donations that people give to us.

“It means that families and children are getting fed and are in homes with electricity and heat.

“We quite often get told things like ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Oasis - people are genuinely struggling out there, a lot goes on behind closed doors.”

And there’s much more to Oasis than the food bank, which is staffed by local volunteers.

The seven staff are supporting up to 80 people in the town through a range of activity groups and befriending schemes and are keen to reach out further and continue to build partnerships with other agencies.

Funding has come from a variety of sources, including the National Lottery, Community Foundation, Enkalon Foundation and the NI Executive, including the Department of Health - minister Robin Swann visited the facility last year - and support also comes from Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council and the major supermarkets.

Originally aimed at providing youth services, Oasis runs a joint programme with Boots, funded through the Building Community-Pharmacy Partnership programme, which is managed by the Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) and commissioned by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB).

The partnership empowers people to improve their mental and physical health by taking control of their conditions, while advocating caution and self-care regarding the continued use and need for medication.

Oasis provides alternatives to the increasing prescription of medication and supports appropriate, safe and efficient use of medicines.

There is also a Multicultural Group, where Syrian and Palestinian women, who have escaped conflict in their home countries, enjoy classes, days out - including to the Belfast Islamic Centre - and other fun activities with local women.

There is also a befriending service, which links up vulnerable and isolated women, enabling them to develop friendship groups and embark on courses together to help them gain new skills, independence and make new connections.

There are several offshoots, including self-care and mental health groups and a series of speakers and tutors has come into the hub to inspire and teach.

Going forward, Jennifer wants to expand what Oasis can offer, especially to men, as many of the current groups target upper and lower age groups.

Jennifer retired from the regulation sector, where she learned leadership and management skills, after feeling a calling towards charity work.

Before coming to Oasis, she worked at The Prince’s Trust.

“I come from what many people consider a privileged background, church is important to me and I saw a lot of hardship in communities - I wanted to give something back and get out and work among people and try to help them to improve their lives,” she said.

“I love that Oasis is providing organic, holistic groups - from their initial classes or courses, women are branching off into other things.”

One new innovation is a social enterprise, ‘Creations by Oasis’, where crafts, cards, gifts and jewellery will be sold to raise funds for Flourish NI and Bridge Association.

Bridge will be well known to Antrim residents as a long-established vocational work-based educational training unit for adults with learning disabilities.

Flourish aims to provide a brighter future for those affected by human trafficking and modern slavery, and the ladies felt moved to assist the charity after hearing a talk at the Antrim hub.

Jennifer says that poverty, loneliness and isolation are causing huge problems in the town.

“There are a lot of vulnerable women out there, who feel like there is very little support, loneliness and isolation lead to mental health problems and the pandemic certainly did not help.

“We know of people, even before covid, who were sitting in their houses for years, because they felt like there was nothing for them out there, they had no friends, they had nothing to look forward to.”

Oasis works alongside various other groups including Antrim Loneliness Network, Prince’s Trust, Homestart, Womens’ Aid, CFC Church, Community Advice, Enkalon Foundation, the Multidisciplinary Ages and many more, as Jennifer says, because: “We are not in competition - there are so many people out there who need help and we need to work together to reach as many people as we can.

“A collaborative approach is key and we want to be able to reach out to more men, too.”

The hub is where new friendships are made.

Coffee mornings enable people to meet one another for a chat, while inspirational speakers like Antrim woman Joanne McConville, who has written a book about the skydiving accident which changed her life, give pause for thought.

“You couldn’t hear a pin drop when Joanne was here,” said Jennifer.

“What we have found is that once we get people out of the house and meeting new people and chatting to one another, they realise that they are not the only ones struggling.

“People swap stories, they find out about each other, they share their experiences.

“It doesn’t minimise their problems, but some of them realise that other people are going through the same sorts of things and they can get together and help one another through it.

“Different little groups with diverse interests branch off, they give each other ideas for activities we can look at putting on, there are WhatsApp groups where people keep in touch, support each other and swap plans - it’s lovely to see how things develop out of that initial sit down with a cuppa.”

One of the initiatives which Jennifer is proud of is the Syrian Womens’ Group, which is being rebranded as the Multicultural Community Group, as more women from other areas wish to get involved.

The council initially approached Oasis to see if there was any support they could offer as families began to arrive in the borough three years ago.

“It has been brilliant to see how the women have integrated and learned so much about each other’s cultures,” Jennifer explained.

“A lot of preconceptions have been broken down.

“The visit to the Islamic Centre helped the local women learn a lot more about some of the customs and conventions and what is behind them and realise that we are not so different.

“The Syrian women have really come out of their shells, some have experienced real trauma, some have not so good English - but they have all found the experience very valuable.

“Indeed one of the Syrian men, part of the family of one of our participants, became really involved and is now in training to become a teaching assistant.

“He gets in touch often to tell us that we have changed his life and we have saved him.

“To finish our most recent scheme, the ladies taught us some dancing, which was amazing, and we also learned how to cook Syrian food, then we went off for an afternoon tea - we were absolutely stuffed that day!”

She added: “Modesty is very important to the Syrian women, it is a huge part of their culture, and we are looking at setting up fitness classes which are tailored to their needs, as conventional classes in public venues can make them feel very exposed and they tend to avoid them.

“We are also working with a local gym to see if the ladies can be accommodated there too.”

The group is now on hold until next month as the Syrian women observe Ramadan.

Indeed, last week one of the Syrian ladies called with speciality bread Marook that her husband had made for Oasis staff.

Some of the feedback from the group has included: “It is a pleasure to know you all. You are all amazing people, we all feel very comfortable to deal with you. We will miss you all and are looking forward to seeing you again in May’.

“I have never laughed so much in all my life – it was fab thank you ladies.”

“Thank you so much for everything you have done for us we have really enjoyed our time with you”.

“I am more knowledgeable about cultural differences and food and able to talk through an interpreter.”

“I feel more open and able to talk to different ethnic backgrounds.”

“It has made me feel more comfortable around different cultures and backgrounds. Given me more knowledge’”

As well as reaching out to more men, Jennifer says that, working alongside other groups, she would like Oasis to start running ‘stay and play’ type services and a support group in the evenings for carers and families who may work during the day, with additional childminding support where possible.

“There is just so much need in the area,” said Jennifer.

“Another thing we would like to do is make more connections between the generations - a lot of young people do not have mentors or steadying influences.

“Not everyone is lucky enough to have a granny or grandad passing down advice or skills, there are some older people who are living in the community with no family left or living near.

“It would be really great to do something where we create a mutually beneficial environment for old and young alike and develop positive influences.”

Two new youth mentors have also recently joined the team and there are also family liason officers.

Jennifer is at pains to point out that Oasis is a neutral, safe space, where no one is judged.

“The charity does have a Christian ethos and outlook, but there is no overt religion here.

“Church is very important to me, but I would not say that I am religious!

“There is no judgment here, this is a place where people can come and feel very safe and secure, everything is completely confidential.

“There is no gossip, there is no telling stories that are not ours to tell.

“Anyone can come to Oasis and know that they will be respected and allowed to grow at their own pace.”:

Oasis Caring In Action is based at 10D High St, Antrim and can be contacted on 028 9446 9020.

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