How a grassroots charity dealt with tragedy and is now transforming a community
Absence lies heavy over Hillhouse.
This housing scheme on the outskirts of Hamilton in Lanarkshire suffers from a lack of many things.
Not least awareness. If it’s well known for anything, it’s for its most famous son, Rangers and Motherwell’s mercurial winger Davie Cooper, who grew up here.
More notoriously, those with long memories might remember it as one of the areas subjected to a cack-handed attempt at a youth curfew in the late 90s.
This was abandoned and was later condemned as a failure, an exercise in scapegoating which had minimal impact other than increasing feelings of alienation.
At least the curfew speaks to the problems parts of Hillhouse faced then – and still does.
The absences felt in Hillhouse – a scheme of around 10,000 people – are the absences felt in many working class neighbourhoods across Scotland.
Absence of opportunity, of funding, of jobs, of services. Despite being geographically isolated, it is now served by one bus route when there used to be four.
From the hill at the top of Brankholm Brae, near where the entrance to the old coal bing used to be, there are several glaring absences on the skyline. From there, for decades, you could see the cooling towers of the Ravenscraig steel works in Motherwell, a plant which provided employment for many across the county.
They’re long gone. They were blown up in 1996 but the whole of Lanarkshire is still dealing with the fall out.
Just last month, more absences: it was announced that Hillhouse’s major employer, the Philips light factory on Wellhall Road, is to close.
Its Christmas lights display was a feature of Hillhouse life since the 1960s. They will not be turned on next year.
What SOC means to me: Jan Nicol's story
I’ve been coming here from when it opened. I volunteer as well as coming in for support, and have just completed the mental health first aid course. I come here from East Kilbride two or three times a week. My daughter stays up the road and she got involved and she suggested I come here.
She said it would help me and I in turn could help other people.
They’re very good at listening here. Sometimes, although it’s in your head, when you say it, it doesn’t sound as bad. That’s the beauty of talking to folk. It makes you feel better. I’ve been very isolated. My daughter and son left the house and then my husband died, I was working full time but four years ago I had to take ill health retirement, which left me on my own.
Everything that was going on in my head but because I didn’t get to vent it I went down a big black hole. I used to go for long drive on the motorway – I was suicidal. I would plan how I was going to do it – go in front of a big lorry and it would take me out.
I was put on anti-depressants, but what’s the point in trying to suppress something? You’ve got be able to talk about it. I’ve found that in here. And I’ve found that coming here I can talk about my experiences and help others.
Absence of a more personal, and devastating, kind is something that lifelong Hillhouse resident Mark Rouse, his wife Donna and his family are also having to deal with.
Mark, 46, a taxi driver, had identified absences in his community and just over a year ago, he and others set out to fill them with their opposite: with community action and grass-roots empowerment.
They looked at what wasn’t there in the scheme and started to sketch ways the voids left by the retreat of funds-stretched statutory services could be filled.
A community organisation was set up which would help provide cohesion, and begin to stitch back together lives which were becoming unstuck.
Mark was still in the early stages of this when cataclysm overtook his family.
His daughter Darian, just 16, took her own life last December.
The Calderside Academy pupil had suffered mental health problems and had struggled with anxiety.
Her death provoked a mass outpouring of grief and bewilderment at how this could have happened to this much loved and cared for schoolgirl, who, it seemed, had everything to live for.
It’s the sort of absence that you could collapse into and never find your way out of.
Darian would have been all over this. She would have been here. She would have been running half the classes.Darian Rouse
But in the months since, Mark and his family have made the decision to channel their grief and their energies into something positive, something which will have a lasting impact on their community and something which will combat absence in the profoundest sense – something that will have an immediate bearing on people who might otherwise feel their life and their circumstances are out of control. Something which might just save other lives.
Enter Supporting Our Community (SOC) Hillhouse.
After Darian died, Mark, Donna and a group of other community activists made the decision to plough on with the project.
They re-focussed it, as it was originally envisaged as a scheme to provide help to families on the scheme suffering from poor mental health.
But this was then broadened out. Mark takes up the story: “In November last year we knew we were going to open some sort of social centre, we wanted to open a wee community hub. All the people involved at the start were children and people who had suffered mental health problems.
“We were going to focus on holistic therapies, mental health first aid training.”
First of all they had to find a venue – and as luck would have it, Mark lives close to an old building on Comely Bank, closed for years and in a state of disrepair, which belonged to Hamilton Baptist Church.
To the church’s credit, it readily agreed to lease the hall at a minimal rent. This was the physical base on which community cohesion could now be built.
Mark continues: “Then Darian passed away and that changed the focus of what we wanted to do. We still wanted to put something in the community that was community based, a real community asset. We wouldn’t tell people what we were putting on, they would tell us what they wanted.
“We wanted to build something ourself instead of relying on services you struggle to access and even when you access them they don’t do what they are supposed to do.
“At first it was going to be for people with families, but we widened it out to the entire community – for people who were isolated or lonely.”
What SOC means to me: Davy Kane's story
I’m a chef to trade but I worked the last 25 years in the job centre. But I've helped with a lot of the renovations in here, with a lot of help from others. We’ve done it with nothing, tried to get stuff from anywhere and we’ve managed it by hook or by crook.
I’ve known Mark for years through another group, Promoting the Role of Father Figures. We got members from some other wee groups together as well. We started looking about and then by sheer luck this place came up, someone knew someone who knew someone and we managed to get in here. We got it all built up.
This place makes all the difference to a place like Hillhouse. It makes all the difference to me. There have been a lot of mental health problems in my family, including myself.
My daughter was very friendly with Darian as well, that is another reason to get involved.
But it’s the simple fact that there’s somewhere to go that makes this whole thing worthwhile. There’s nothing in the area for weans, for adults, for anybody where they don’t have to spend money.
It reduces isolation. People come in here, sit down, cup of coffee and a blether and it makes a huge difference.
Parts of Hillhouse still have many problems – the streets around the SOC base rank among the most deprived in the country according to the Scottish Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation.
In the Healthy Living Index, some postcodes are marked as one out of ten.
But it still has that most valuable of commodities: a community.
There are talented people everywhere – and no shortage of people who want to help. You only have to provide the setting for them. And working class communities are naturally collective.
Soon SOC Hillhouse was providing a range of classes – just last week there were guitar and crochet lessons, along with community gardening and arts and crafts sessions for the kids.
SOC approached the local Third Sector Interface, Voluntary Action South Lanarkshire (VASLAN), which provided invaluable in helping it constitute as an official charity and access funding.
If we help one person, that’s what we want to do. There’s four or five people who now use this centre who had nowhere else to go.
Mark said: “VASLAN baby stepped us through the whole process, they took us through every stage, the paper work, applying to OSCR, which we achieved in July.”
VASLAN’s Peter McGhee said: “We worked with the group through the process of registering with OSCR and for the would-be trustees to understand their duties and responsibilities. We assisted the group with some questions that OSCR wished to clarify and also supported the group in sourcing and obtaining start-up funding for the development of their community hub.
“The group provide a vital service for the community of Hillhouse and Burnbank, providing support and advice for bereavement, social isolation and mental health issues.
“The journey that the team have gone on in the short period of time is testament to their determination to meet the needs in their local community. And this is supported by the wider Hamilton community.”
As Peter says, SOC is not just about providing classes, or its increasingly popular weekly coffee morning.
It also provides advice on a range of issues, including how to access services. It is unique in the area in doing this, in this way.
The charity is fulfilling its mental health remit through conducting suicide awareness classes – and working with Lanarkshire Association for Mental Health it has just helped 16 volunteers become certified as mental health first aiders.
Mark said: “If we help one person, that’s what we want to do. There’s four or five people who now use this centre who had nowhere else to go. One of my neighbours had a stroke and she basically slept for 16 hours a day. We got her in here and it has given her a new lease of life. She was in here on the movie night giving the kids their choc ices.
“We get donations from Hamilton Asda on a Monday night through the Fareshare scheme. We’ve helped people who have been caught out with Universal Credit, facing weeks between payments. We have sent them away with a couple of bags of messages to keep them going.”
None of this, admits Mark, is rocket science: it is the basic, elemental idea of working class solidarity, of providing help for those in your community that need it most.
He now says that three other Scottish local authorities are looking at the SOC model to see how it can be replicated.
And it can – because people, at heart, want to help each other and to contribute to the collective wealth of their communities.
Mark said: “If the people in the community have ownership they want to get involved. It’s ground-up – they set the agenda, they own it.”
SOC is more than the story of Mark Rouse, or Donna Rouse or of Darian Rouse. It’s the story of Davy who helped gut the building and transformed it. It’s the story of Jan who travels there every other day from East Kilbride to volunteer and to contribute and who says the place rescued her from the pits of her depression.
But Darian’s photo is pride of place in the hall: another way of defying absence, something which is the very essence of SOC Hillhouse.
She’s there as plans are discussed for the future: setting up a community garden, buying the building outright, outreach projects with school non-attenders, getting funds for a full-time co-ordinator, providing SQA qualifications.
Mark says: “Darian wanted to help people, she mentored people in school. That’s why I want to help people today, because that’s what Darian wanted to do. She wanted to help people – even though she struggled herself she still wanted to help other people.”
Donna adds: “Darian would have been all over this. She would have been here. She would have been running half the classes.”
Now there is hope over Hillhouse.
Taking ownership of the future: Christina McKelvie MSP
It has been incredibly rewarding to see the team of volunteers at Supporting Our Community go from strength to strength this year.
I have been helping to support the group and have seen first hand, thanks to the tireless work of the group, the journey to a bustling community hub.
The group took over the hall at the start of the year and having carried out renovations, they are already offering services as diverse as free coffee mornings every Tuesday, mental health first aid training, arts
and crafts courses and much more. They even have plans for new well-being and mental health services for the local area.
Supporting Our Community is also looking for the space to be used by other local community groups, turning it into a vibrant hub for the local communities of Hillhouse, Burnbank and Blantyre.
What it has achieved in Hillhouse presents a perfect example of local areas taking ownership of their own future, rather than having it decided for them.
The work it is doing is perfectly placed to help tackle problems like social isolation, loneliness and adverse mental health conditions.
The role of local elected members like myself in this should be to advocate and support for these kinds of initiatives and I look forward to continuing to do just that for the team at Supporting Our Community.
Christina McKelvie is MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse.