After six years of being part of developing and growing Community Circles, my path now takes me on to new opportunities with Boo Coaching and Consulting . So, I thought I would share with you some of my key reflections from the last six years from the initial meeting we had where we agreed that we needed to develop a model to grow circles at scale, to now, where we have made massive developments, learnt so much, and most importantly, supported many people to have a Community Circle.

Trying circles in different places

Part of my early role with Community Circles was as a development worker; trying out Circles in different settings. This was a difficult role at times as with any new idea, early days of trying ideas brings a lot of learning – sometimes about what has worked well and other times about what hasn’t worked and what we needed to change. This is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, but essentially, creates the foundation for growth to where we are today.

It is one particular setting for Community Circles that really stands out; the work we did with a group of Churches in West Lancashire. I’d like to give particular thanks to the late Rev Simon Glynn for his enthusiasm and his insight of how Circles could enable the church to involve more people with the pastoral care of the church and to support those people in the local area with things in their life they may need help with.  We learned that there were a lot of people from the churches who wanted to get involved and we trained a team of 15 volunteers. As the role only needed a couple of hours a month, people who found it difficult to commit to the traditional roles in the pastoral care team found that they had capacity for this more focussed role. We also learned that by offering Circles in this way, it was open to anyone who needed a circle – the only ‘criteria’ being that they lived in the area.

Within this piece of work I remember a man who had a circle with the purpose of making his empty flat a home. Through the connections in the churches and local community, he was given carpet, wallpaper, a bed and even a three piece suite! He wanted his living room in green – and amazingly everything he was offered fitted his colour scheme! The circle helped with making this happen, and supporting him with getting hot water, heating and managing bills. The Circle really helped him to have a home, which was the security he needed to start to move forward in other areas of his life.

A different way of working

Within Community Circles we work differently from any other role I have been in. We are all self managing – which means we take responsibility to ask each other for what we need. We have weekly ‘Tactical Meetings’ where we update each other on what is new and then each talk about what we need help with, and what help that help might look like. It is a refreshing way to work which also means that things can happen quickly. There are not layers of bureaucracy to work through and wider decisions are made by the team. In the day to day work we can manage our own workload and respond in an appropriate way to situations, knowing that we have the authority to do just what is needed. We also bring our whole self to work and our connections and knowledge are welcomed.

Working in Care homes

Most recently I have been working across the Wigan borough with care homes to support them to develop Community Circles. I have continued to learn a lot about the best way to support care homes with this – to their backdrop of time pressures and priorities. We have learned together that the initial investment of time for developing a Circle for an individual, soon pays off massively as the ripples from each Circle start to have a positive impact on the lives of other people living in the care home.

We have recently developed ‘hubs’ which bring together several care homes in a close geographical area. This has enabled care homes to share their ideas, the learning and how they have responded to challenges. It has also enabled them to share assets and to link people together with similar interests.

People I have met who have had a circle

I have had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful people and sharing their joy of the difference a Circle has made for them. One particular lady made me stop and really think about how we told people about what we do:

I remember meeting Margaret in her home and telling her about Community Circles and how they work. I was met with suspicion as to why I was there and she told me she didn’t want a circle. As I reflected on her words and body language, how she was telling me about the people in her life, but at the same time how lonely she felt, I was convinced that a Circle could help her, but was respectful of her suspicion. I decided to forget any mention of Community Circles and simply said, ‘how would you like to invite the friends you have mentioned around to your house for a cup of tea, a piece of cake and a good natter once a month?’ She replied, ‘oh I’d love that!’ I suggested if she needed any help with anything then she could ask them while they were there; again, she loved that idea. So there was born Margaret’s circle which made a huge difference to her life and helped with many practical things too.

I learned so much from that conversation about the importance of language and how we can relate to people. Margaret’s Circle was never referred to as a Circle, but that is exactly what it was!

 People who have inspired me in my work

I am always inspired by the people who give their time to volunteer with Community Circles and make a difference. Without them, it simply would not happen. There are also other people who give their time and donations. Community and voluntary groups, local businesses, and community activists – all wanting to make a difference. This is what Community Circles are all about and we appreciate everyone’s contributions.

Wigan Council have been a fantastic partner to work with – thinking creatively about what is possible and wanting to try new things. They have been the first local authority we have partnered with and it has enabled us to grow and learn even more and to share that work with others.

The three people closest to my heart from my Community Circles work are Helen Sanderson, the late Max Neill and my colleague and friend Cath Barton. I have learnt so much from them and it has enabled us to be brave and try new things. Right from the beginning with an information and fundraising evening of wine tasting at a little wine bar in Stockport….to now seeing so many people having a Circle and seeing the difference it makes in their life.

It feels emotional for me to be leaving my role with a model I helped to build. But I am grateful for being part of it all and I know I will continue to be an ambassador for Community Circles. After all, they really do work!

Helen Smith Co founder and Community Connector with Community Circles