I've been lucky enough to visit SHAPE a few times over the years, and each time I'm surprised at how positively things have developed from the last. My most recent visit was my first as representing The Sentinel. Recorder and camera at the ready I'm met by the newly elected chairwoman on the SHAPE board, Lolly Young, to give me the grand tour.
"What we do here," says Lolly, "is we provide training and work experience for the disabled and vulnerable people of the island."
SHAPE operates from the old first school in Sandy Bay, next door to the community centre. The first room we go into is busy with a mix of students with learning difficulties from Prince Andrew School (PAS) and SHAPE clients, taking part in a life skills programme, learning anything from cooking to cleaning, to taking care of themselves. This is an extension of their educational programme from school. I meet 19 year old Trish Leo. "I make soaps, chains and candles," Trish tells me. "I don't use them myself, I put them in the shop to sell."
Suzanne Williams, a PAS student says, "I like to work with the people at SHAPE." Suzanne has learned to knit at SHAPE, she tells me she has made a scarf.
The room is busy and although I get plenty of smiles, everyone is a little shy speaking into my microphone. Lolly tells me the room we are in will soon become a little cafe. "The idea is when we have visitors and tourists popping by we can offer them tea, coffee and cakes." The furnishings look very familiar. "Lots of the furniture you see here was donated from the RMS," says Lolly, "that was really generous and helped us a lot here."
We move into the kitchen, newly decorated by the clients themselves in bright green and orange. "We've refurbished with new fridges, cooker and microwave," explains Lolly, "and installed a sink for washing hands, so we can actually start our cafe."
On to the largest room, the craft production area, where different sections are hard at work. Rosedale Andrews is in charge of the fibre products section. I mention that it looks very busy. "It is very busy," confirms Rosedale, "and very time consuming. But, there's a big demand for flax and aloe-craft products." Rosedale shows me a souvenir tortoise which sells for £5 each, made completely from local flax, which are very popular amongst tourists. "It was Pam Young's idea," says Rosedale, "she sent us a photograph of something similar that was made in China, so we adapted it and came up with our own design." Working on production is Lily Williams and Gladys Leo, with Miss Ann Williams as an assistant trainer. Rosedale is able to make a tortoise from start to finish in 30 mins, which is quick, although she points out she's been working with the fibre since the age of 5.
The team were also working hard at the time to fulfil an order from New Zealand, for 100 tiny flax baskets with soaps and shower gels. I spoke to Wendy Essex, one of those making the baskets. Wendy is visually impaired and comes to SHAPE every Wednesday. "It's been over a year now since I lost my sight. I've started coming to SHAPE in January, this year; for me it's a day away from home, learning different things and using what senses I have." Wendy was happily explaining to me how she made the baskets, however, I was still stuck on her loss of sight and prompted her to tell me more. "I had an attack of Acute Angle-closure Glaucoma," said Wendy. "I have a complete loss of sight in my right eye, but I have 5 percent sight in my left eye. It was a huge change in my life, I'm having to adapt to everything. But I do look forward to Wednesdays, coming here to SHAPE." Currently Wendy's Wednesday visits are voluntary, but it is planned for her to join the voluntary work scheme from 1 July, then she will spend 3 days a week at SHAPE being employed. "Wendy is very fast at typing," Lolly tells me, "she also helps with administration work for half the day."
Wanda Isaac initiated a new scheme at SHAPE, of local wool spinning. Despite having her own business, Wanda volunteers her time at SHAPE on Wednesdays. She explained the various stages of processing the local wool from raw material, through to the different items that are produced, including jewellery. Just seeing her operating the spinning wheel was in itself an impressive skill, for me, anyway. Also volunteering her time on the spinning wheel was Liz Johnson, SHG's Civil Society Office. Joyce Clifford was working away on the third spinning wheel. "Joyce also came to us on a voluntary basis," said Lolly, "but we are employing her now as the wool products have taken off."
Samara Thomas from Ruperts, has Cerebral Palsy. Most of her disability affects her left side, but that hasn't stopped her getting involved. She is busy nearby, sewing a flower pattern onto a bag made of hessian fabric. "I have been coming here since last August," Samara tells me, "it's friendly here, you can get on with everyone." I ask about the weather in Sandy Bay. "Yes, it gets cold," said Samara, "really cold." Rosedale tells me Samara has now set herself a goal to learn to knit. "When Samara came here she had no use of her left hand," said Rosedale, "but since doing craftwork she can now move her fingers in her left hand, which Sunnit (the physiotherapist) says is all thanks to SHAPE." Samara told me the first thing she wants to knit is a hat – for Rosedale. This brought loads of laughter from the team. We made an agreement I would return to photograph Rosedale in the hat when it was ready.
Julie George is the newest recruit at SHAPE, and amongst other things is responsible for the jewellery making, the soaps and candles. "Our main focus for the last couple of weeks has been candles," says Julie, "what with winter coming up we hope they will be quite popular." Julie and Lolly enthusiastically got me to sample the different candle scents, including a delicious smelling coffee candle. The day before Julie had learned to make lip balm for the first time and hints, maybe shaving oil will be another product in future. "We want to start a small catalogue so people will know what we have at SHAPE. It will be effective to have a printed catalogue in our outlets but we are also hoping to put the products on our Facebook page. Hopefully it will also go onto our website, www.shape.co.sh."
Martin Joshua has been managing SHAPE for 3 years. "It's been a brilliant project," said Martin. "When I started we had 6 clients, myself and Rosedale supervising; now we have 32 clients and 6 trainers, so it's really developing. We now have plans to expand to a new premises to do our recycling project. It's quite congested here now with the introduction of further clients, and also the drying conditions at Sandy Bay are not great, it takes longer because of the location for our paper and fuel bricks to dry. So hopefully the new location will be on the sunny side of the island, preferably New Ground or Ladder Hill."
At the back of the building is the flax decorticator machine, newly arrived, using funds donated by the old SHDA (now ESH). "Basically we're trying to revive the flax and aloe industry," said Martin, "The consignment of flax fibre that we've been using up to now is actually from Nick Thorpe, from their flax mill that was in operation in 1982 or sometime like that. So now with this machine we are going to be able to produce our own flax fibre and also to supply for other people on the island who want to do the craft but can't get the raw material. This machine has actually come all the way from China; they use it for banana platen and hemp." It is hoped to have the decorticator up and running by October.
We move across to the recycling 'shed,' although I joke with Lolly, this looks too posh to be called a shed. The 'shed' was paid for using United Nations funding, Martin told me. From the funding they have been able to construct the large recycling shed and begin an agricultural training programme.
In front of the shed, drying in the mild winter sunshine, are beds of paper fire bricks. These are made from recycled paper and card, and are the size of typical building bricks found in the UK. The paper is pulped. Holes are drilled through to help them burn better. They are suitable for a range of uses, including barbeques, cooking fires, home heating and geysers. So far there has been a lot of production. The next phase will be marketing the product and sales.
A large commercial shredder, capable of processing 2 to 3 tonnes of paper per hour, is on site, which has been sourced through OTEP funding.
Woody Stevens, the recycling trainer tells me about operations in the shed. The process involves first shredding the paper, then putting it through a Holland beater machine to form a mushy pulp. The pulp is then squeezed into various shapes using moulds to create the various paper products, from picture frames to fire bricks, and even sheets of paper itself. Many of the SHAPE products such as the soaps and candles are actually presented in paper packaging that has been produced on site.
Perry Vanguard, one of SHAPE's first clients, is operating the Holland beater. He kindly takes time out to demonstrate how the sheets of paper are produced from the pulp.
Lolly introduces me to Trevor Henry and although it's mentioned he has a disability, it's not immediately apparent. Trevor is only 29 years old, I ask him just what is his disability? "I had a brain tumor," he replies. "I couldn't move my right side properly. This was 4 years ago but I'm feeling much better now, by coming to SHAPE and getting involved, talking to people. I'm not at home sitting around." Trevor was previously a carpenter, when diagnosed he travelled to Cape Town for medical treatment. He underwent chemo and then radiation treatment on his tumour, and has since been on the long road to recovery. He still has problems with his right side, but is feeling much better. Trevor has been volunteering at SHAPE for 2 years, after he got in touch and asked to come. Working in the recycling shed he told me every day he learned something new, and paid tribute to Woody. "Woody is very crafty, he's always coming up with new ideas." I asked Trevor if he had to recommend just one product for me to buy as a souvenir, what would it be? "The product I would recommend would have to be the picture frames," said Trevor, laughing, as this is what he has been making.
Ashley has autism. He confirmed he loves coming to SHAPE. Lolly tells me how he has developed socially in leaps and bounds because of the environment. Ashley has a running joke with manager, Martin. Following an occasion where Martin dressed up, Ashley now calls him 'pink pants,' and leaves drawings around the place of Martin.
Nichaela Essex is another client, she has been coming to SHAPE for 4 years. She told me, "SHAPE has got a lot better over the years." During the official opening ceremony Nichaela gave a speech, despite being quite nervous. Nichaela has recently passed her maths and English in literacy and numeracy exams that are held at SHAPE, sponsored by AVES.
My visit to SHAPE flew by. There seemed to be so many amazing stories, so much positivity and 'can do' spirit. The thing that stood out, above everything, was the buzz of excitement around the place and the pride that both clients and staff exuded when talking about SHAPE, and what it is they do there. No one focuses on negativity or disability. When I wanted that information I had to ask.
"What is important for people to understand about disabilities is that it can happen to anybody at any time," said Lolly. "You don't have to be born with it; you don't have to inherit it. It can happen through illness, it can happen through an accident; some of the people you spoke to today they were born with it, or like Trevor, had an illness. It can also happen through an accident. We know so many people who've had bike accidents and are now completely disabled. And I think some people forget that; they forget how it can just happen to anybody at any time. On island, before SHAPE, there was nothing for disabled people really, so SHAPE is so wonderful for that. And young people like Trevor, when they ask to come here, you know they want to be here; that's saying something about what the service is providing."