Taking on a major project

Caring staff: (from left) Nafeesah, Tatiana, Nelum, Punsala, Mick Parker and manager Mazhar MalikCaring staff: (from left) Nafeesah, Tatiana, Nelum, Punsala, Mick Parker and manager Mazhar Malik

Donna Mizzi explains why the Snaresbrook Arts Project (SAP) urgently needs to raise its profile in order to continue using art as a way to train and employ adults with learning difficulties.

SAP is not to be confused with Wanstead's ultra-smart Woodbine Centre and Cherry Tree Café, which it sometimes links up with for activities. Unlike the Woodbine Centre, SAP is not funded by the local authority. It concentrates on art and craft – for therapy and as a way to produce an income.

And what a difference it makes to about 20 people a week who use the project in some way. Its "workers", aged from 16 upwards and from a wide range of multi-cultural backgrounds, are encouraged to learn new skills, which have far-reaching effects on their self-worth. With its stimulating art projects led by a small team of caring staff and dedicated volunteers, SAP is much more like a club than a workplace. It doesn't have flash offices; it works from "studios" built at the bottom of a garden on Hollybush Hill that resemble images of Santa's workshop, with shelves of craft materials and colourful goods. At one end of the small office area Cellophane-covered greetings cards are displayed in a rack. These are clearly professional and expensive, maybe bought for inspiration, so where are the cards produced by the project workers? Manager Mazhar Malik, who started the project, points to the same rack: "All of those."

That's one of the marks of its products. The appealing and professional-looking work would be snapped up anywhere. SAP has even sold piles of goods at the prestigious Country Living Fair in Islington. A style spotter from the glossy Period Living magazine recently homed in on its products. In turn, the clients have produced everything from arty hand-decorated bags to vintage-style boxes, jewellery, paintings and party signs. It can even consider making special orders for a shop to sell.

Mazhar, who lives near the project's Hollybush Hill base, explains that she set up the SAP four years ago when working as a carer for her sister-in-law. "She kept coming home depressed from the day centre she was sent to. They were apparently just moved from room to room all day, hardly doing any activities; unfortunately that sort of thing is far too common. I couldn't leave her there."

Mazhar rapidly discovered a need for a stimulating environment for adults with learning difficulties, and community support worker Mick Parker helped her build up the centre. He can frequently be seen accompanying people from the project and gently bolstering their confidence and ambitions. But Mazhar soon realised her own plan to help train the adults to be employed was over-optimisitic.

"Again and again local businesses said they would like to take on someone from the project, but were worried about insurance, health and safety. Understandably, they couldn't pay for a member of staff to keep an eye on them." The centre had to take on a number of daycare "clients" from Redbridge and Waltham Forest in order to keep going.

Before long, Mazhar realised that the only way the adults with learning difficulties could continue to enjoy their sense of purpose in training for work, would be if SAP continued to train and then sold the work itself.

Snaresbrook Arts Project is making an appeal to owners of empty shops on the High Street. It needs at least a temporary retail space so that it can raise money to cover its costs. Donations or fundraising are always welcome. Visit www.snaresbrookarts.co.uk


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