In September 2019, Life Skills arrived in Colchester. It's a free, 8 week course, open to all, and is all about giving people the tools to build a budget for themselves and then to stick to it, to cook fresh food, to look after their mental and physical health and live well, even on a low income. As well as the weekly group sessions, trained coaches can offer one-to-one support on particular issues too, helping course members set and achieve their goals (and so far we have a 90% success rate at achieving targets by the end of the course!).
The Life Skills project is backed by Colchester CAP Debt Centre (CCDC), an independent charity working in partnership with a national charity to deliver advice, help and ongoing support to those in debt, which itself is made up of volunteers from churches across Colchester, lead by St Leonard's, Lexden. Life Skills is delivered by some of these amazing volunteers, working alongside a trained coach.
Just important as the practical budgeting tools and skills we teach is creating a supportive community. Every session starts with a shared meal - which we often prepare together too - and some social time. If we have to keep meeting online, we plan to deliver meals to people in time for them to join a video call when we can still have lunch together! We also play fun games linked to what we're learning about (could you tell the difference between economy and luxury crisps or washing up liquid?!) and also try new things. We've tried making origami animals and knitting poppies for remembrance and decorating cupcakes.
It is this community building that really sets the Life Skills course apart from other budgeting courses. As well as helping reduce social isolation, the community building is central to improving confidence and wellbeing, which then helps people apply what they have learned to how they live.
Don't just take my word for it: feedback from previous courses supports this. For example: one group member told us that by the end of the course they were not only better able to budget and save, but that they felt happier, part of a community and had more hope for the future. We'll take that! And another group member enjoyed it so much, she's done the course twice!
We know that the need for Life Skills was growing even before the impact of Covid-19 began to hit. The pandemic has increased isolation, unemployment and mental health issues, making this service even more important.
Since starting in September 2019, we have run three courses (the last one online, during lockdown), and before lockdown we already had courses planned up to the end of 2021. Unlike the first courses, these will take place in community spaces in different parts of the town, which we hope will remove some of the barriers around travel that were stopping some people joining us.
We currently have two trained Life Skills coaches (me, and my colleague Steve Goddard), but a third coach (who started herself on the first course we ran!) is in training and we are growing our team of amazing volunteers who help us run the sessions, as well as strengthening links with local agencies (the local food bank, JobCentrePlus and housing associations, for example) and organisations, including the borough council as well as schools and churches, to increase our reach.
In addition we have been approached by several organisations offering supported living, by other churches and by a school, asking us to deliver courses for their clients. We cannot currently respond as quickly to requests like this as we would like.
So we are already starting to expanding the service to meet growing demand, but need more resources to support this.
Your generous support will mean can move forward with plans to build a growing number of Life Skills communities across our town. As well as meeting the costs of printed course materials, supplies for practical cooking and craft sessions, help with training costs and the hire of venues in communities across Colchester, it will allow us to offer a warm welcome and generous hospitality to those doing the course.
The funding will allow us to give more people practical, effective skills to manage their money, live well on a low income and grow in confidence.