During 2021, in the County Durham constituency of Darlington, two volunteer-led community projects saw the creation of essential play areas for local children, reconnecting residents and tackling isolation and loneliness in the process. There are projects like these waiting to happen all over the UK.
The playground at Corporation Road Primary School used to be a “plain” expanse of concrete, while the scruffy space surrounding Firthmoor Community Centre was crying out for some TLC.
When funds were made available through Darlington Borough Council, the community jumped at the opportunity to help, rising to the challenge with the help of Splash Projects, which facilitated the transformation of both venues into vibrant and exciting spaces.
Both locations suffer from economic, and therefore, social deprivation. But as teenage volunteer Boran said, “Darlington is one big team, people have your back here”. It is this attitude which made the projects possible. The workforce was made up entirely of community volunteers including the local cadets and Rotary Club members, with teenagers, pensioners, refugees and councillors representing Darlington’s diverse make-up.
With tears in her eyes, after the school playground had been reshaped into an inspiring exploratory zone, headteacher Ann Pringleton, said: “This is what my school children and the community deserve.” And Rachael Lowes, Head of Children and Young People at the community centre, said: “Words cannot describe the transformation.”
Thanks to the skills of the experienced Splash Projects’ team, which designed both projects, it took only a few hours to train the volunteer army in basic construction skills before they took on a huge DIY-SOS style makeover. And such was the tenacity of the volunteers who joined forces to haul planks of wood, bang nails, and make rounds of tea for one another, both spaces metamorphosed in a matter of days.
It took one week last July to “brighten up” the primary school playground, which had been judged as “requiring improvement” by Ofsted who gave a particular thumbs down for its lack of outside facilities. Instigated by MP Peter Gibson, volunteers created a global themed structure featuring iconic landmarks from 14 nations represented by pupils at the school, including Iraq, Syria and Ghana.
Then, in November, in just three days, the underused space surrounding the community centre was converted into a miniature village by a team of 150 volunteers, undeterred by the impending Storm Arwen and bitterly cold days. This initiative was instigated by Councillor Jonathan Dulston, supported by Mr Gibson: the design theme was Darlington town centre landmarks and featured a variety of activities aimed at improving children’s physical health and wellbeing through fun and play.
But, while the end results are having a marked effect on the community and will do for years to come, the process also had a profound impact. According to the ONS, lockdown restrictions exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness, with 7.4 million people reporting that their wellbeing was adversely affected.
In Darlington, the projects gave members of the community, many of which were struggling with a lack of social contact and mental health, a sense of purpose.
Yvonne, a volunteer in her 70s, said having the opportunity to be involved in the project made her feel like the last year “hadn’t happened”. She said: “I live on my own and I’m old so lockdown had a really bad effect on me. Getting physical with the project was a wonderful thing.”
Teenager, Boran, added: “Lockdown had a dire impact on my mental health, I wasn’t getting out, I wasn’t being myself, but having the opportunity to do stuff for my community really helped. It didn’t just give me back something but allowed me to give to my community as well.”
“I think it’s the best school playground I’ve ever seen,” said eight-year-old Mo, afterwards. A well-deserved endorsement.
At the community centre, every spare penny went to improving the facilities to benefit the children. But until last autumn, there were no funds to improve the outdoor area.
One of the volunteers, 20-year-old Curtis, a student at Salerno Training Services, which also supported the initiative, said his mental health had suffered so much due to lockdown that he hadn’t been able to leave the house. “Covid was probably one of the hardest times I’ve had in a long time,” he explained. “It was a rough patch. I couldn’t go out in public. I couldn’t be around people. But coming out and helping with the project helped me get my confidence back. And it’s been great giving back to the community.”
After the completion of the community centre project, having been involved throughout and seeing the impact it had on the children’s faces, Councillor Alan Marshall, said: “Projects like these are so important for cementing those community links.”
Mr Gibson, added: “The community centre project was slightly tougher than the school project due to the cold weather, but I was stunned at the continued enthusiasm of the volunteers. Projects such as these show that there is a real sense of community in Darlington.
“I was thoroughly impressed at the daily progress of the build and the patience and understanding the Splash team had with the volunteers.
“The value of projects like these, both in their process and end result, cannot be underestimated and I wholeheartedly recommend that my fellow MPs consider similar projects in their communities.”
Now in its fifteenth year, Splash Projects have worked with countless businesses, business schools, charities and local authorities around the world, changing communities and lives. In 2021 alone, 5,680 participants took part in 33 projects with 25 different charities across the UK and Europe.
Tim Poole, Splash Projects Project Manager, added: “Both projects were exciting to be involved in and represent a great all-round team effort.
“It was fantastic to see the local volunteers pulling together for the children and staff who will benefit from the new play areas for many years to come.
“The camaraderie, team spirt, and collective and individual efforts by all was incredible to witness from start to finish and the projects have left a lasting legacy.”
To find out about how Splash Projects can help bring about impactful change in your constituency, visit, https://splashprojects.com/