When Jersey Mencap won the JEP Pride of Jersey Environmentalist of the Year title last year, everyone at the ceremony delighted in the charity’s award.
Tom Ogg talks to Alex Wiles, the organisation’s manager, about the environmental and social activities which are so important to its members’ wellbeing
THERE were smiles all round when the Jersey Mencap team were crowned Environmentalists of the Year at last year’s JEP Pride of Jersey ceremony.
The award was given to the local charitable organisation in recognition of its ‘pond project’ at La Ferme in Trinity, which enhances biodiversity in the area and provides habitat for wildlife, and which is just one of the many projects introduced by the Jersey Mencap team in recent years.
Jersey-born Alex Wiles is manager of Jersey Mencap and says that, in addition to the environmental benefits, the popular pond project enables the charity’s members to enjoy the natural world and gain important practical skills.
‘This tucked-away site has been very slowly nurtured over a number of years, with much of the work done by hand, and we have all really enjoyed learning together,’ says Alex. ‘The sessions are focused on the benefits of regularly accessing nature, although we also get involved with initiatives, such as bird and butterfly counts and water testing, and we have enjoyed collaborating with other local charities on specific projects, among them the Jersey Bat Group, Trees for Life Jersey and the Jersey National Trust.’
In addition, the Jersey Mencap team have occasionally welcomed volunteers from local companies to the pond in order to work alongside members on the project. The ‘tree-planting programme’, meanwhile, has thus far nurtured over 50 saplings and has seen students from Mont à L’Abbé School helping to pot up acorns ready to be planted.
‘Jersey Mencap delivers a year-round varied programme of activities for adults who have a learning disability,’ says Alex. ‘We regularly introduce new activities and we are looking forward to focusing on this even more now that Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted. It’s great that we can support out members back into a regular routine, helping them to reconnect and offering a variety of social opportunities.
‘For those with a disability, life can be that much harder at times,’ he continues. ‘They might be more at risk of isolation and exclusion, which can impact general wellbeing, and the sort of challenges and milestones that we all encounter in life might be more difficult for them to navigate.
‘We all need friendships and things to look forward to, and we all have the right to feel safe and supported in our chosen activities.’
A typical week at Jersey Mencap begins with a ‘health walk’ on Monday morning, which is the first of many weekly Jersey Mencap Social Club activities, and which offers exercise and the opportunity to hear about what all the members did over the weekend.
‘Our art tutors then open up the art rooms ready for the week ahead,’ says Alex. ‘There are five “Taking Part Making Art” sessions each week, with additional sessions during the summer, and these are all held at public art venues. Members are encouraged to try new creative outlets and to develop their skills, and they gain in confidence by doing so.
‘We have some really talented artists among the members while others gain more from the therapeutic benefits of the sessions.’
To date, the Taking Part Making Art sessions have resulted in several public exhibitions, while Jersey Mencap members have taken part in local art competitions and have been invited to various community art projects.
‘We also have a Jersey Mencap programme of health and fitness sessions, which include Zumba, circuits, pétanque and “laughing yoga”, and we enjoy collaborating with Jersey Sport for some of these,’ she adds.
In total, Jersey Mencap has over 120 members, all of whose personal needs are varied and different, as too are their home lives.
‘Some of our members live independently while others live with their parents or they have a “care package” with a care provider,’ says Alex.
Nevertheless, an individual maintains their membership to Jersey Mencap no matter what their personal circumstances: ‘It doesn’t matter if their accommodation, carers, benefits or work opportunities change because their leisure activities are independent of these things and it is their leisure activities which are often most important to them.’
Among the more recent additions to the Jersey Mencap Social Club programme is a regular film club, which was introduced after membership grew to such an extent that visits to the cinema proved unduly flexible.
‘We now use an accessible local venue and members vote on what to watch,’ says Alex. ‘Musicals have had us all dancing in the aisles, and comedies and animated films are always very popular choices. We have a break halfway through each screening and offer out popcorn, which adds to the fun, and we always pop on the subtitles because some of our newest members have hearing impairments.
‘A quarterly calendar of our activities is posted out so that members can choose which activities they want to do and book them in advance,’ he adds. ‘Many of our activities are free, and, when there is a cost, Jersey Mencap subsidises this. A lot of our members live on a tight budget and we don’t want affordability to ever be a barrier for them.
‘The cost of running the Jersey Mencap Social Club is approximately £10,000 and this comes out of our fundraising.’
Alongside Alex on the Jersey Mencap team are Ali Hand and Marge McFarlane, and Alex says that the trio are ‘quietly proud’ of what they have been able to achieve.
‘We are a pretty small but tight-knit team and, while we all might cringe at the cliché, we share a passion for what we do. Collectively, we have clocked up over 40 years of working with people who have learning disabilities. Between the three of us, we co-ordinate our projects, which welcome an average of 50 to 100 Mencap members every week, and this keeps all three of us on our toes.’
It isn’t entirely a three-person operation, however, and Alex pays tribute to the many art tutors, support workers, volunteers and governors who have contributed to the success of Jersey Mencap since it was first launched six decades ago.
‘Jersey Mencap celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020, although celebrations were delayed until 2021 [due to Covid-19]. We put on a tea party in the grounds of Government House for all our members.’
At present, the organisation is looking to relocate to new premises in the Island, although – at the time of writing – no location has been confirmed.
‘We really need a base that is fully accessible because many of our members have both physical and learning disabilities,’ says Alex. ‘I think that renting a unit would give us more flexibility in terms of growing our projects and, as such, location is really important. We are actively looking.’
Given the size and location required, Alex estimates that the cost would be around £50,000 per year, which is a sizeable financial commitment for a small charity, but he and the team are confident that donations and fundraising will enable them to relocate later in the year.
‘After two years of having to cancel or postpone our main fundraising events due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are now working to ensure our events are as successful as possible in 2022, and hopefully this will enable us to get back on target with our fundraising objectives.’
At present, Jersey Mencap have two main events lined up for the year ahead, with the Jersey Mencap Charity Golf Day, which will be held at the Royal Jersey Golf Club on Friday 6 May, and the South Coast Charity Challenge, which will take place the following week on Sunday 15 May.
‘There are a few place still available for the Jersey Mencap Charity Golf Day,’ says Alex. ‘The South Coast Charity Challenge is a 15-mile coastal hike, which has been taking place since 2006, and which regularly welcomes between 400 to 600 walkers. We hope that Islanders will help us to make this a really successful event.’
Registration for the South Coast Charity Challenge is available at jerseymencap.org.
‘We regularly post updates on all of our projects on the Jersey Mencap page on Facebook,’ says Alex. ‘We’re always keen to gain more followers because social media is a great place for our members to celebrate and share their achievements through our projects.’
• For more on Jersey Mencap, or to make a donation, visit jerseymencap.org