This month we’re chatting to one of our newest residents at Make, Lee Pennington, founder of the Open Door Charity. I was thrilled to hear that the Open Door Charity were joining our Make Hamilton community, as they’ve already done so much amazing work in the community. I also have to say, the branding at Bloom building is second to none so I couldn’t wait to see how they would transform their new space at Make Hamilton (spoiler alert: It’s already looking amazing). If you’ve not heard about the Open Door Centre or Bloom Building before, you definitely need to and you can find out by having a read through our interview below.
Over a zoom call, Lee talked us through all of the work that Open Door has been doing and some upcoming plans to keep you in the loop!
Hi Lee! Can you tell us a little bit about the Open Door Centre and the work you do?
We have three main strands to our work at the Open Door Centre, but that plays out over several key projects.
The main strand is based around free immediate access to talk therapies and therapeutic support for young adults who are feeling depressed, anxious, stressed, getting panic attacks or feeling down.
The second strand is around volunteering and social action. Getting people involved from the community who’ve been there themselves to deliver the front line therapeutic services and build that life experience into a positive outcome in the lives of others.
The third strand is to sit mental health and the conversation and services around mental health in a different area of the community than it typically sits. Usually, it happens within a clinical domain, with doctors and medication and that type of world, but we’re trying to take it to the world of music, culture and the arts. We want to try and engage with people who are maybe disengaged from mental health, to re-imagine what it is and how it affects people, and help to support themselves and challenge stereotypes.
To deliver all of our work we’ve got the Bloom Building and soon to be Blossom Haus, based at Make. They’re our two sites and from them, we deliver our key projects. We’ve got Bloom Coffee which is a coffee shop, Convenience Gallery, our partners living within that space and making that an independent gallery with a social value around mental health. We do the Bazaar programme which is a talking therapy intervention. We’ve got the Open Doors volunteering initiative which is about volunteering and ups-killing the community. We also run a project called Colours which is about supporting wider members of the family with the emotional impact of a family member whose mental health might not be the best. We also do gigs and festivals and have several other tenants and agencies involved with the charity. So a lot is happening!
Amazing, sounds like you’re super busy! What would you say inspired you to start Open Door Centre?
I came up with the idea about 10 and a half years ago. At university I studied Counselling and Therapeutic Studies because it was something I was interested in and it was in Leeds where I wanted to live. I didn’t want to be a councillor but I wanted to do a job related to it, but couldn’t find a job doing what I wanted to do. When I was about 22 I started to struggle with my own mental health and wondered how many other people were feeling like me and what help or support was available. I researched to see what was available and there wasn’t much out there. So I thought I’d set up something that I would feel comfortable walking up to and accessing, and it was also an opportunity to create the job I was unable to get from anyone else.
I applied for funding, and we were granted a sum of money, which was the first full year’s costs of the charity, it was like a lottery win for me. It gave us a chance to start and a sense of purpose. In year one our target was to support 50 people, so we had to get people coming in. Nobody came for the first 6 months but then people started to come in, and by the end of the first year, we had supported 52 people. We grew organically from there.
For the first couple of years, it was just me in the shop in Liscard. About 5 years ago it outgrew just being me, so now I can’t take responsibility for what it’s become without recognising that the right people were involved at the right time with the right idea. To my knowledge, we’re now the biggest independent provider of talking therapies on the Wirral so we’re a rapidly growing charity. Soon we’ll have 10 full-time members of staff. When we closed the buildings just before lock down we had about 108 people coming for sessions each week, so worlds away from where we started.
It was good to see you guys still engaging with people during lock down, how did you carry on or diversify during that time?
We carried on during lock down and tried to keep an element of business as usual. We did the Horizons project with the Convenience Gallery as we didn’t want to leave people with no options, but we couldn’t do our usual work. The Horizons project was an art offer and getting people to be creative while they were at home.
We used the lock down period as an opportunity to trial things we couldn’t during ‘normal’ life, like people accessing our support remotely. And we were able to trial licensing out our services in a satellite capacity to universities. It was a chance to take stock of what we were doing and see what we could be doing better, and to expand our people and places. When we first moved into Bloom, we were worried about how we were going to fill the space because it’s so huge, but fast forward 18 months, and we were starting to outgrow it. We needed more space and more people, so lock down has given us the time to make the renovations, set up Blossom Haus and recruit additional members of staff. We’re coming back as a much more expansive organisation with abilities to support more people.
What has been one of your biggest achievements or what you’re most proud of for Open Door?
Setting up Bloom. When I imagined what the organisation would be when I was writing that initial funding bid, I thought we’ll have a building with a cafe in one part, a music venue, and provide our services in another. Bloom was the moment that we realised that vision, and it’s been transformative in terms of where we can go and what we can do. When we moved out of Liscard, we had 30 or 40 people a week who we were supporting with a team of about 15 mentors, and 18 months later it’s three times the size of that. We’ve been able to deliver our projects and commissions such as Colours because of the building we have now. I didn’t know if we had a space that matched our reputation and our vision for what we wanted to do before we had Bloom.
What would your advice be for anyone who wants to start an organisation or wants to do something that helps the community?
Don’t talk about it, just do it, people find lots of reasons not to do stuff. We speak to people all the time who say ‘I’ve had this great idea, I’ve always wanted to do this or that.’ And people think there’s going to be lots of big red tape and unforeseen things that will trip you up, but it’s not.
What’s coming up next with Open Door Charity, Bloom Building and Blossom Haus?
As an organisation, we are unable to stand still. Opportunities always find us, something always comes up and we’re always growing. We want to make sure that as we do grow, we’re a part of this community. We want to work as closely as possible with Make. We’re excited about being here now but excited about what the future looks like even more.
You’ve been at Make a couple of months now, what’s it been like having a space here?
Being at Make is a perfect fit because we try to stay away from doing stuff in isolation. So every part of what we do we try to work with key partners who we trust and who share our values and we can work cohesively alongside. Whether that’s with the gallery or CAMS or Talking Together Wirral or referral agencies. The way the world of Make works; about linking up tenants with other tenants; is a perfect fit with us as we’ll need more and more partners, definitely within the creative world that Make inhabits.
Just to finish off, tell us something new you’ve learnt (or realised) recently
I always thought ‘back to normal’ was a good thing but from this lock down period you realise how many things in your life or work you do actually want to change. I wouldn’t aspire to go back to anything but aspire to change and improve things. Apart from opening the pubs, that’s the one back to normal I don’t mind.
I think most of us will agree with you there Lee, more so the restaurants for me!
Where can people find your services?
Website: Open Door Centre
Make sure to keep up to date with the Open Door Centre on socials and look out for their new Blossom Haus coming soon!
Instagram @theodcharity, @bloom_building
Facebook: @ODCharity, @bloombuilding
Twitter: @theODCharity, @Bloom_Building
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