It all grew from conversations with folks in small boxes on a screen in my kitchen.

Our hopes to develop a really great project with Barnardo’s the Base Whitley Bay, was something that Whitley Bay Big Local had had for years, and here was the funding opportunity that might just make our dreams become a reality.

Based on both of our organisations’ established relationships within our community with people of all ages, our strong arts culture and the beauty of our beautiful seaside town, we were keen to link these ideas. Our aim was to create a project where we test our theories that we could improve the lives of the participants through connections, learning, and the arts.

The planning and application processes were long and thorough. We knew that for success we would need a solid framework in which we could then create the freedom and opportunities for the project, once launched, to be co-designed by the participants.

Once we knew we were successful we were able to take the first step in the plan. Recruiting a project worker who was kind, patient and ready to be led by the members, rather than being full of their own ideas and concepts for the project, was key.  We were so lucky to find Helen, who had those qualities and more.

Once Helen was in post she had to navigate the changing Covid rules and restrictions while also ensuring that what we did felt safe for the mixed-age participants.  Although there were many issues around the pandemic, the project launched and face-to-face sessions began quite quickly. Listening to the people involved was the key throughout.  Providing activities that captured people’s interest, exploring some simple art forms with lots of opportunities to form the core groups and together plan for the exciting two years ahead.

Giving real opportunities for all the participants to be heard was central to everything.  They suggested the art forms. They created the artists’ brief and they interviewed and recruited the artists to lead each stage of the project. This also gave them great opportunities to reflect on the whole process and their input. The project team had to learn quickly that our ideas were not to be shared, and learning to keep them to ourselves was a huge part of the process.

Along the way we learned that time is needed to develop relationships and trust with leading artists and we would want, if given another similar opportunity, to spend longer with each artist to achieve this.

The enjoyment shown by the participants throughout was evident by the queues at the door ahead of sessions and the investment by participants in gathering materials, extending their artwork at home.

The connections that were built up in the sessions became friendships that were supportive and extended well outside of the buildings. Seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of the participants and the genuine respect and warmth that was shared in the mixed age sessions was heart-warming.

The final seal of approval comes from the qualitative data that confirmed what we were observing on a weekly basis. People were feeling happier, less anxious and less lonely.

Sarah Sutton is Community Engagement Manager, at Whitley Bay Big Local

To read more about Bay Create, visit the project page.

To read the final evaluation of Bay Create and see some of the artwork, visit the insight page