By Karen Higgins
This week I say farewell to my formal role with the Shrewsbury Ark as I hand over the role of Chair to Emily Bell and step down from the Board of Trustees, but this where the journey started and what I've learned.............
In the summer of 2012, while I was working for the local NHS, the Shrewsbury Ark hosted an open day, and I was asked by my CEO to attend on her behalf. During a tour, as part of the visit, we came to a quiet room on the top floor which clients used for activities, and on the table was a piece of artwork, I recognised the style immediately. I felt anxious, my heart was racing and if I’m honest I wanted to leave.
We made our way downstairs and as I reached the bottom a familiar face said, “Hello Sis”, there was my elder brother looking bright eyed and more to the point recognising me. Most times I had seen him in the previous 10 years he was well and truly under the influence of something or other and had not a clue who I was. In just a few moments I was whisked off into the backyard and proudly introduced to all Ben’s friends, laughing and joking in the sunshine, it is such a vivid and beautiful memory.
Not long after, I was contacted by Rev. Chris Walker who was the Chair of Trustees and knew me through church, ‘Would I be interested in becoming a Trustee of the Shrewsbury Ark?’, was the question. Now there were a few weeks of deliberation but my overriding thought had been that although as a family we had failed to support Ben, here was an organisation that was supporting him to live, so maybe if I joined them I could indirectly support Ben and others like him.
On the evening of 6th September 2012, I received a phone call from Chris asking me again if I would join the Trustees, this time I said ‘yes’. Just two hours after I had that conversation with Chris, when I had committed to the Ark, two young men attacked Ben, an unprovoked attack in which he sustained horrific injuries and died just a few hours later.
Many people understandably assume that my involvement with the Ark began because Ben died, but it didn’t. My commitment to the Ark began because he ‘lived’, when I saw him at the Ark he looked so content and without the mental pain he frequently suffered with. That is what the Ark does, it welcomes people into a safe space and supports them at their pace, to find their feet.
That was nearly eight years ago and now I am leaving the Ark after taking on the role of Chair for the last two years, and what a truly enlightening and joyous experience it has been. That may seem a strange expression to use, after all Ben is not the only life lost from the Ark community, and by a cruel twist of fate, only a couple of weeks ago we said goodbye to Kyle, the sweetest and most beautiful soul you could hope to meet.
However, within all this loss, grief, pain and tragedy there is always hope and every day at the Ark brings special moments of joy whether it is someone moving into a home; the grin on someone’s face because they’ve been in the kitchen and made their own bacon buttie (the way they like it!) or a demonstration of talent in a piece of art.
The Ark itself has grown immensely over eight years from a single day centre operation with two staff and a handful of volunteers to nine paid staff and over 60 volunteers, an outreach service, a charity shop and boundless generosity from the community. In most other settings I could shout about that as a success, but sadly the expansion of the service reflects a growing need, and the complexity of the challenges being faced.
When I started, the greatest challenge was finding accommodation but now that is matched and surpassed by providing support for substance abuse, trauma, care leavers, serious mental health illness and learning disabilities to name just a few. You did read that right, people with learning disabilities live on our streets, not all are in supported accommodation with wrap around care, but in doorways where they are taken advantage of by dealers who quickly get them addicted to cheap substances.
The issue is immense, for every person you see sleeping rough there are at least another 30 without a place to call home, in temporary accommodation. Incidentally the figures will tell you anything from 8000 to 28,000 people in the UK slept outside at some point during 2019, if as a nation we can’t agree on the figures, I think we can all agree that even taking the lowest figure, there is a problem. I do get angry, but left unchecked that is such an unproductive emotion so I have looked for what can be done and where there is energy for change.
We can never measure the value of something that didn’t happen because an intervention prevented it. For every desperately sad statistic there are people whose lives are better: Laura Fisher and her team at Shropshire Council; The team at Palmers café and Shrewsbury Baptist Church; Riverside Medical Practice (especially Nicola Roberts); the local police; The Food Hub; Shrewsbury Town FC; Street Pastors; Shrewsbury Town Council; Shropshire Recovery Partnership; The Samaritans…….. the list could go on - all these organisations collaborate every single day, working alongside Shrewsbury Ark to care for people who are incredibly vulnerable and, in many cases, extremely poorly.
Then there are the amazing people I have met at the Shrewsbury Ark, the staff, trustees and volunteers, oh my, how I am in awe of all of them and their boundless compassion, care and commitment. Thank you to each one of them! The recent Queens Award for Voluntary Service was just an acknowledgement of what I already knew, they are wonderful people. I also want to thank our clients who bring as much joy into our lives as we provide in support, their courage, resilience and quite frankly their incredible humour fills me with warmth every time I meet any of them.
To every one of you in this beautiful Shropshire community who makes a difference, working, volunteering, raising money and supporting the Shrewsbury Ark, thank you! I look forward to seeing the journey you all continue to take with the Ark, it is in safe hands.
There is so much to do and if we allow the scale of the problem to overwhelm us we will be frozen, and incapable of acting to alleviate the pain being caused, so I will leave you with my favourite story, shared with me by an inspiring leader I worked with in the NHS and one I share at the Ark anytime the challenge seems too great.
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly placing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing.
Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m helping these starfish, Sir”. The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently placed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”