Giving a voice
The Choir with No Name puts on weekly singing groups and meals for the UK’s homeless and socially excluded. Emilee Tombs went along to a rehearsal to find out how the Masonic Charitable Foundation is helping
It’s a muggy Monday evening in London, and a group has started to gather on the steps of the Only Connect Theatre in Kings Cross. Some are old, some young, some large, some small, but all are chatting animatedly, waiting for the heavy metal doors to open. This is the weekly gathering of the Choir with No Name (CWNN), a charity set up in 2008 to offer weekly singing classes and dinner to the homeless and vulnerably housed. They’re anxious to get inside and start singing.
‘I first came to the choir because I needed something positive to concentrate on,’ says Stef, a 41-year-old ex drug addict who spent a lot of his young adult life homeless or in and out of institutions. ‘When I was 19, I was living on the streets of Piccadilly Circus and I became addicted to drugs. To fund my addiction, I shoplifted and worked as a prostitute. It was only when I came to choir and had something to get well for that I was able to successfully go to rehab and get myself clean.’
Now a freelance florist, Stef is just one of the success stories present at the singing session, with many other choir members eager to discuss not only their hardships but also their achievements, which they directly attribute to the weekly CWNN gatherings. At 6pm on the dot the doors swing open and the group filters downstairs to grab cups of tea and biscuits, passed out by sociable volunteers.
On a level
There’s no audition to join CWNN, no fees, and no obligation to attend every week. The initiative has proven popular and there are now four choirs in the UK: two in London, one in Birmingham and one in Liverpool. ‘Everyone here has different experiences,’ says Sascha, a flame-red-haired woman who is attending choir for the first time tonight. ‘There’s fellowship and sharing and community here that I’d been missing in my life. It’s unimaginably important to have groups like this.’
After spending 25 years working as a teacher in international schools in Japan, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Romania, Sascha returned to the UK to find herself homeless, and is currently living on friends’ couches while she tries to establish a life for herself in London again.
Vince, a long-standing member and Sascha’s friend, interrupts. ‘With some groups you don’t fit in,’ he says, ‘but everybody fits in here.’ Sascha agrees: ‘Exactly. Choir is kind of a leveller.’
‘There’s fellowship and sharing and community here that I’d been missing in my life. It’s unimaginably important.’ Sascha
For the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), CWNN is more than just a singing group. ‘The choir is about building people’s confidence and their social skills, as well as teaching them to be tolerant of others,’ says Caroline McHale, Senior Grants Officer at the MCF. ‘The beneficiaries are people who have been excluded from society in some way, so teamwork like this, which aims to reduce their isolation, is extremely important. The choir is the conduit, but for the members it’s so much more than that.’
After reviewing the choir’s application, the MCF donated £5,000 to help towards its running costs. ‘The fact that it runs workshops in hostels and day centres as well as the weekly choir, and was able to help 500 vulnerable adults last year, was important for us,’ says McHale.
It’s show time and the choir makes its way upstairs to a towering white room with wooden floors. Wrought-iron balustrades above are festooned with lights and there’s a stage at one end and a piano at the other. After strict instructions to not talk over each other from choir master Liz, the group gets into the warm-up exercises, sticking out tongues and pulling faces at each other, which elicits a belly-shaking laugh from the back of the room. ‘I’ve missed that laugh, Kevin,’ Liz calls to the black cap of a doubled-over figure in the third row. Kevin pulls himself together enough to join in again, grinning widely.
After learning a verse and chorus from Our House by Madness and David Bowie’s Life on Mars, we head back downstairs for vegetable fajitas in the break-out room. One of the choir ambassadors David notes that for some this might be the only meal they’ll get all week.
In 1993 a car accident left David with a severe brain injury, and singing in the choir became an integral part of his recovery. Like a number of the members he’s not currently homeless, but has experienced it to a degree in his life, and CWNN has provided him with help and support to find accommodation. ‘There was a whole lot of things I did to help me to be okay in mind and body again after the accident. When everything else ended or didn’t go well the choir was my constant.’
Having joined in 2010, David is one of the longest-standing members, and his role as ambassador sees him promoting the choir and helping to organise events, such as the upcoming Christmas concert at Shoreditch Town Hall. ‘Choir has done so much for me, and for everyone here,’ he says, looking to Stef, who is also an ambassador, for assurance.
Stef backs him up wholeheartedly. ‘Whether it’s the social interaction you enjoy or just popping in for a decent meal, you’ll instantly feel really comfortable,’ he says. ‘I’ve never felt so supported.’
FIND OUT MORE To read about the Choir with No Name, go to www.choirwithnoname.org
While financial support is invaluable for charities, hands-on help provides assistance of a different kind. Steven Short examines the importance of Freemasons rolling up their sleeves and giving their time to good causes
The Masonic Charitable Foundation’s (MCF) charity grants only launched in April 2016, but have already touched and improved thousands of lives. And not just by donating much-needed funds – the grants go beyond financial contributions to offer practical support and that most precious commodity, time.
To date, about £3.2 million in grants have been awarded. Andrew Ross OBE, Chairman of the MCF Charity Grants Committee, is pleased to report that applications for grants have recently increased dramatically as people recognise what the charity is offering. ‘We are quite a big player in the world of giving,’ he says, suspecting that a lot of fundraisers have noticed how the MCF is now actively funding local causes as well as national concerns.
But there is much more to this charitable work than just awarding grants. ‘I look at the doing, as well as the giving,’ explains Dan Thomas, who is Chairman of the Five of Nine Club for young and new masons as well as Worshipful Master of St Peter’s Lodge, No. 7334, in Birmingham.
Dan recently offered his time to Acorns Children’s Hospice in Selly Oak, which had a conference room in need of some attention. ‘They had this huge space that was tired and battered so I organised a team of members, as well as inviting family and friends along, and we basically took the room apart, repainted and redecorated it,’ says Dan. ‘We then ended up outside painting fences and tidying up the gardens, too.’
‘Volunteers really are the lifeblood of FareShare.’ Lindsay Boswell
Meeting a need
For Dan, the day at Acorns was an opportunity to connect with a community. ‘It was such a good feeling, and we’re looking forward to our next project,’ he says, referencing the volunteer work he has lined up with FareShare West Midlands (right), which redistributes surplus food that would otherwise go to waste. In June FareShare was awarded a three-year grant of £60,000 from the MCF, which will part-fund the salary of a warehouse manager and help towards refrigerated vans delivering surplus food to charities. Dan hopes to assist at a local soup kitchen that struggles for staff numbers. ‘We’re going to take a load of brethren out and work there to take the load off,’ he explains.
The offer from Dan and his fellow masons is something for which Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of FareShare, is thankful. ‘Volunteers really are the lifeblood of FareShare,’ he says. ‘Without them we wouldn’t be able to redistribute good, surplus food to hungry and vulnerable people.’
Another organisation that has benefited from an MCF grant is Living Paintings, Berkshire, which was awarded £40,000 to fund its Touch to See Book Clubs. These groups give blind and partially sighted people the chance to engage with topics such as art and history, via specially designed books and audio material.
‘The book club project brings members together so they can share and explore the books in company,’ says programme manager Maria Storesund. ‘The impact [of the grant] has been huge. The project is going off at a great pace. Thanks to the Freemasons, we’ve been able to provide our members with more support and give them the books they’ve been longing for.’
Ten to 15 copies are produced of each book, along with an audio CD or USB stick, ‘so everyone can look at the books together. People get really inspired; even our quieter members will begin to talk.’
Provincial Communications Officer for Berkshire Robin Kent arranged for Deputy Provincial Grand Master Colin Hayes and Provincial Grand Almoner David Jarvis to attend a Touch to See session, to witness first-hand the work the grant would be funding and make the presentation of the grant.
‘They were really impressed by what they saw,’ says Robin.
‘Thanks to the Freemasons, we’ve been able to provide our members with more support and give them the books they’ve been longing for.’ Maria Storesund
Freemasons have also pledged to support Touch to See Book Clubs on a practical basis. One way they are doing this came about as a direct result of the visit. ‘Talking to people at the session about their local needs, we saw that some people were struggling to actually get there,’ says Robin. The lodge is now in the process of setting up a series of lifts to remedy this situation. ‘We’re finding local drivers to take people to the sessions that the MCF funds. We had no idea there was this
need before we got involved.’
The volunteering with Touch to See Book Clubs and FareShare is a great example of how Freemasons are increasingly giving time as well as money to those in need, and taps into something Dan has identified during his work with young and new masons. ‘I want to explore taking the charitable arm of Freemasonry in a different direction, to do something that isn’t just about giving money,’ he says. ‘We want to take the Freemasons into the local community – to see what we can do for people, and let individual Freemasons see what we could do for people.’ Dan has created a #freemasonryinthecommunity hashtag for use on social media to support the idea.
The MCF’s Ross adds his thoughts: ‘There is no doubt that volunteering is a huge resource for good in this country, and the Freemasons, their families and their friends have a lot to give. We are reminded to be good citizens and to think about others. We’re reminded, as the words of the initiation put it, to be respectable in life and useful to mankind, and giving to charity is one important way in which we do this.’
And for organisations like FareShare, hands-on help will always be desperately needed. FareShare’s Boswell says, ‘We’re growing rapidly, so we’re on the lookout for more volunteers – sorting food, working as a delivery driver, or collecting food donations at Tesco during the Neighbourhood Food Collection, which takes place at the start of December.’
Both Dan and Robin believe that those who volunteer are rewarded equally to those on the receiving end of such generosity, albeit in a different way. ‘It gives you a great sense of achievement and wellbeing,’ says Dan, who also feels the work with Acorns Hospice helped to strengthen the Five of Nine Club. ‘We built relationships within the group. People learned new skills, and it gave everyone a sense of purpose and worth.’
Robin says, ‘Personally, I find it very rewarding actually making a contribution to the community. Freemasonry is about two things: making better people of the individuals who are Freemasons, and those people making a valid contribution to a better society.’
And of the MCF grants, Ross notes wisely, ‘We’re not the biggest grant giver, but we are a significant one: we have a budget of £4 million to £5 million, enough to make a significant impact,’ he says. ‘I think people know that masons are a generous bunch, but now we have an opportunity to think really seriously about how we can make an impact on society, for the better of everybody.’
‘We built relationships within the group. People learned new skills, and it gave everyone a sense of purpose and worth.’ Dan Thomas
FIND OUT MORE FARESHARE www.fareshare.org.uk
TOUCH TO SEE www.livingpaintings.org
Whole new world
Life changed for Finley when he took possession of a Wizzybug. Glyn Brown finds out how masonic funding is giving more children like Finley the mobility to explore
If you can’t move properly, life can be tough and require a bit of assistance. If you’re a child who wants to explore the world yet can’t get around, things are more daunting still. But charity Designability is working to change children’s lives for the better.
A group of occupational therapists, engineers and design experts, Designability pools expertise and practical research to develop groundbreaking products. One of its most ingenious innovations is the Wizzybug – a bright red, motorised wheelchair that gives freedom to under-fives with a range of physical issues. And it’s benefiting from a £38,250 award from the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF).
A will to explore
Designability, previously the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, is based at the Royal United Hospitals Bath; it’s here that the radical Wizzybug was trialled.
‘It came out of a conversation with the hospital’s children’s centre,’ says Alexandra Leach, Designability’s commercial manager. ‘It seemed children with movement disabilities were being restricted, kept in buggies and pushchairs way longer than other toddlers. Yet your average two-year-old is into everything, and by investigating they’re learning and understanding their place in the world.’
Leach notes that it must be frustrating for children with, for example, cerebral palsy and spinal muscular atrophy to be treated with such caution, as they have the same desires as any other toddler.
‘Finley was put into the Wizzybug and he was asked to drive it forward. “And he did! The smile on his face was just incredible.” ’ Rosalie Davies
‘The phrase for what can result is “learned helplessness”,’ says Rae Baines, senior children’s occupational therapist at Designability. ‘You can see how it happens. Carers, with the best intentions, can be overprotective. And some children eventually lose the ability to think and act for themselves.’
It must be hard for adults to stop this, though? ‘That’s where the Wizzybug is so great. At the very first assessment we see some parents who are used to stepping in, but we try to suggest that the way for their child to sort out how the bug works is to discover for themselves,’ says Baines.
The Wizzybug is for children from 14 months to about five years, an age group that the NHS in general doesn’t provide powered mobility for. The Wizzybug is operated by a simple joystick. ‘It doesn’t take long – sometimes during the assessment, they’re off and away,’ says Baines. ‘And you see this huge grin on their face – for the first time in their life, they can move.’
But allowing a previously immobile child to get from A to B is not all a Wizzybug can do. Baines explains: ‘It gives independence, autonomy about where they want to go. It provides environmental and spatial awareness and helps with manual dexterity and fine motor skills. As the child grows in confidence and determination, the brain gets a cognitive workout and begins to grow in size.’
All of which opens up possibilities for the future. ‘Because the Wizzybug is such a bright, friendly-looking device, it gets a lot of attention,’ says Baines. ‘So instead of passers-by maybe not knowing where to look if they see a disabled child, the child will be surrounded by amazed, impressed people. Which, apart from the wonderful social inclusion, helps the child’s communication skills.’
Children bond with their Wizzybugs, and give them names. According to Rosalie Davies, her three-year-old son Finley calls his Biz and, she says, ‘Biz really is the biz.’ Finley has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA2. Rosalie and her partner Joel suspected a problem when he was about eight months old. ‘We could sit him and he’d sit, but he’d fall forward and wouldn’t use his arms to prop himself up, or if you put him on his tummy he wasn’t doing the little press-ups babies do.’
The discovery of SMA2 was made at 13 months. ‘It was pretty devastating,’ says Rosalie. ‘Atrophy means wasting away, so he’ll reach a certain point and then, if the nerves aren’t used, they’ll start to die.’ With hippotherapy building core strength, the Wizzybug can help with nerves and muscles in the neck, arms and hands.
The first day with Biz was ‘magical’. Finley was put into the Wizzybug and he was asked to drive it forward. ‘And he did! The smile on his face was just incredible. And I… well, I was a mess.’
Baines notes: ‘It can be an awful shock to find your child has a life-limiting condition. But to then find the Wizzybug, almost with a naughty character of its own…’
The mobility offered by the Wizzybug is just the start. When children grow out of them, they’re refurbished – each is robust enough for about three owners – but they will have taught children the skills to move on to bigger things. Rosalie and her family have started fundraising to buy Finley a powerchair. And because there’ll be no worries about him using it, she’s looking at a world that might involve all kinds of things – possibly including Paralympic sports such as powerchair football and bowls game boccia.
At Designability, the MCF grant will fund nine Wizzybugs. Leach says, ‘When we heard about the Freemasons’ grant, we were overwhelmed, and delighted when they came for a visit.’
And the MCF’s Chief Operating Officer Les Hutchinson couldn’t be happier. ‘Part of our mission is to help build better lives by promoting independence – for Freemasons, their families and the wider community. The free Wizzybug Loan Scheme is a great way to help children.’
For Finley and his mum, the impact is seen daily. Now, Finley can run away, ‘be naughty and cheeky’, and play hide and seek. ‘And I love him following me,’ says Rosalie. ‘I love walking a few steps and turning round, and there he is – things other people might take for granted.’
Wizzybug fact file
Each Wizzybug costs £4,750. This amount covers the build, assessment and refurbishments for other children.
As families with disabled children already have other outgoings, the only way these chairs can be made available is through the Wizzybug Loan Scheme, which is funded by donations and the fundraising efforts of local communities.
Invented in their current format in 2006, there are now 260 Wizzybugs across the country, but more applications come in every week as awareness grows.
FIND OUT MORE Get further information at www.designability.org.uk
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - NO. 37 SPRING 2017
I read with interest your article in the winter issue of Freemasonry Today about buggies for children with movement disabilities, in particular the Wizzybug, a fun motorised wheelchair for under-fives, and the Masonic Charitable Foundation grant of £38,250 to Designability – an admirable organisation, if I may say so.
We of the South Cheshire Masonic Golf Society have for 40 years been engaged in the fundraising and purchase of our variant of this machine: a sporting, stripped-down version, at a cost of £3,800.
In June this year we celebrate the handover of our 50th powerchair at a nearby golf club. To celebrate the handover during the celebration of 300 years of Grand Lodge, our Provincial Grand Master, Stephen Blank, and his team will attend a presentation at the golf club.
As your account states, when children are first installed in these chairs and realise what can make them ‘go’, the delight on their faces is a great pleasure to witness – there is no dry eye in the house.
We recently made great strides in membership increases, raising our society membership number from 35 to 109, and we now include non-masons as associate members, which can increase funds raised and introduce people to Freemasonry.
Our powerchairs are a very stripped-down version, yet comfortable for children to sit in. They are adjustable as the child grows older and need an increase in chair size. This, together with a regular service programme, makes a bargain out of £3,800.
Our society was started by a Chester businessman back in the 1970s when he saw an article in a magazine about the Peter Alliss Masters organisation, which Alliss had set up with similar aims as ourselves: a summer day’s fun on the golf course and something for the community at the same time (enquiries welcome).
Gil Auckland, Loyal City Lodge, No. 4839, Chester, Cheshire
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - NO. 38 SUMMER 2017
In the chair
A letter in Freemasonry Today, Issue 37, gave information on the aims of the South Cheshire Masonic Golf Society (SCMGS) and I thought it might be helpful if I provide further detail in clarification.
The society has indeed been in existence for 41 years as of now. In this time the members, and the lodges in the Cheshire area, have made some incredible donations to the cause of providing prescription powered wheelchairs to children who fall financially outside of the benefits or welfare system we have. We
I stress the word ‘prescription’ as many people are fooled by companies into buying off-the-shelf powered wheelchairs that are not suitable for the user. Ill-fitting chairs cause and worsen ailments. It is essential that chairs provided for the children are suitable for a span of up to five years. A growing child will easily have a specialised moulded seat replaced and adjustments made to the chair are that much better if the mechanics are correct at assessment.
There are national companies under the charitable banner who supply wheelchairs at an overpriced cost to cover the business. The SCMGS ensures that every chair is purchased at the most competitive price possible, enabling us to stretch our donations to the maximum.
The members of the society over the years have raised approximately £200,000 for the purchase of the wheelchairs; the 50th wheelchair is to be presented at Eastham Lodge Golf Club at the Cheshire Provincial Golf Day on 28 June. Our fixtures and forms are provided at www.scmgs.xyz for anyone wishing to support in any way.
A chair provides a child with a form of freedom that we, as able-bodied, ignore. It provides respite for a parent in the knowledge that their child is safe and able to be active of their own volition. To enable a child to socialise even a small amount, have friends and join in some fun and play can be a parent’s greatest wish and a child’s greatest happiness. A child’s laughter in play can melt the coldest heart. A small donation subscription is £10 per year and is always thankfully received.
We are so grateful to everyone who has supported this cause by even the smallest donation; every penny we receive goes to a chair.
Noel Martin, Loyal City Lodge, No. 4839, Chester, Cheshire