An innovative new collaborative education and skills programme is helping women in north and west Belfast improve their lives
Three of Belfast’s best-loved women’s organisations – Giving Life Opportunities to Women (GLOW), Shankill Women’s Centre (SWC) and Women’s Tec - have joined forces to bring the Connect4Women programme to fruition.
The five-year scheme, which started in April 2020, has received £500,000 National Lottery funding, and has already helped scores of women during these turbulent pandemic times.
Connect4Women has just had its official launch event at Women’s Tec in north Belfast after three attempts were thwarted by lockdown restrictions.
Each organisation offers something special. At Women’s Tec, participants are taught trades and practical skills, SWC offers further education opportunities such as GCSE Maths and English, and GLOW NI offers personal development and confidence-building courses.
By coming together, they realised they could better help women identify the direction they want to take in their lives and help them reach their goals.
Women’s Tec chief executive, Lynn Carvill, says with a few alterations to course delivery in April 2020, the programme got its start when there was lots of uncertainty across society and women desperately needed support and connectivity.
The beauty of Connect4Women is “it’s broad and deep”.
“It’s a holistic approach, and allows women to reach their full potential,” Lynn said.
“The feedback has been really powerful. For some, it’s a small stepping stone into work, and for others, it is a lifeline. Some people are with us for four or five weeks, for others, it’s a longer time.”
The beauty of the Connect4Women programme is “it is built around women’s lives”, and free childcare provision is available for those who need it.
“Women’s lives get in the way. Someone in on a programme and then their parents get sick, or they do, then they have to leave. They can come back in again. Flexibility is there. The programme is built around women’s lives.”
Collaborations are not always easy but the combination of Women’s Tec, SWC and GLOW has worked well because “everybody has an eye on the beneficiaries”.
“Everyone understands the needs and where the women are coming from,” Lynn said.
“That is at the centre of the programme. The coordinators delivering Connect4Women are really enjoying working with each other which is testament to good values of the organisations.”
GLOW chief executive, Chara Clarke, says taking part in programmes at its City Life Centre by the peace gates between the Shankill and Falls roads can be transformative for women.
The team at GLOW has had great success with ‘The Real Me’ ten-week personal development programme, which is built on life coaching tools and techniques, around confidence, self-esteem, ‘overcoming stinking thinking’ and setting positive goals.
“We recognised that working with other organisations, developing partnerships to offer women a wider range of programmes and courses was needed.
“The women absolutely love it. They are always asking, ‘What’s next’? They love it. It is not just another wee course, it’s a pathway that can lead to something else.”
Throughout the pandemic, women have been facing challenges, including anxiety, social isolation and, in some cases, abusive relationships.
Women’s-only organisations provide safety, comfort and a safe place for women to build their confidence and harness their potential.
“It has been life changing for so many women. It has given the women energy and built their confidence.
“We are now back in the centre. Being face to face is great.”
Easing women gently into new experiences and facilitating their visits to the partner centres has opened up more opportunities.
“North and west Belfast might not be that far apart, but the women may not have done it before.
“We want to see more and more women from north and west Belfast getting in touch with us.
“If they are looking to develop themselves, to develop their lives and their families’ lives, we want to hear from them”.
SWC manager, Betty Carlisle MBE, says there is “power in collaboration”.
“It is hard work but well worth it and we are really reaping rewards from it,” she said.
Women are signing up in their droves and if SWC can’t provide learning in a particular area, one of their partners will be able to.
“What is good is, it is the whole package. If someone comes in to do a GCSE, we can offer them other stuff and put them on a path to further and higher education. If we can’t provide something they are interested in doing, we have a partner who can.
“It is maybe something they haven’t thought of. The package works out well. It is balanced in different ways. It is not all academic, but it is learning of some sort.”
Betty can see Connect4Women is “really making a difference”.
“It is helping women move out of their comfort zones,” she said.
Women are experiencing different parts of the city, different surroundings, and mixing with women from different age groups and backgrounds, which is a long-running theme of SWC’s work.
“They all have fascinating stories to tell and learn from each other. There is so much added value to Connect4Women.
“We used to get women in to do a GCSE English. They came in, did their class and away they went. That was fair enough. This package can help get them more involved with other people, other organisations and more with ourselves.”
Betty says the pandemic has been extremely challenging for women and as we emerge from restrictions, she would like to see Stormont and other decision makers channel more longer-term investment to help tackle challenges around childcare, confidence building, mental health, and making women feel safe and supported.
‘It is going to open so many doors for women’
Joleen Wasson (36), from west Belfast
“I was sitting in the house with my kids thinking about my life. Being a wife and mother is amazing, but I thought about what else I could do. A local newsletter came through the door. I saw the word diploma on it and thought to myself, ‘I am going to do one of those’.
“I did the Steps to Excellence personal development course, and a Reflexology diploma through Shankill Women’s Centre.
“I thought I was in way over my head, so I went to the course leader and said I was quitting. I was told, ‘No, definitely not’. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. It has been amazing.
“With reflexology, so many people come through the door. There is a high rate of suicide in my area, and I wanted to do something to help, so I was doing therapies for people.
“I am looking forward to doing a counselling course in September. Through counselling, I think I can help even more people.
“Women’s Tec, Glow and Shankill Women’s Centre are brilliant. It is great they have come together for Connect4Women. It is going to open so many doors for women. They will be guided through the doors of all the centres.
“I definitely feel so much more confident. I really didn’t have any confidence. That has changed. I remember feeling out of place but now I feel like part of the family. Through Connect4Women, I have made friends for life.”
‘It gave me ideas for alternative futures’
Mary Tolan (60), from north Belfast
“I had lost my job through a health issue, and I thought, ‘That’s me on the waste heap after working all my life’.
“Through Women’s Tec, I did carpentry, gardening and then a personal development course. It was springboard for me. I was signposted to Falls Women’s Centre for a course which ended up being in Shankill Women’s Centre, to train to be a facilitator, so in the future I could head classes for other women.
“I heard and read about GLOW. I did the ‘Real Me’ personal development course. It was great. It gave me a boost in realising what I was capable of.
“After that, because of Covid, a lot of classes were online. With GLOW, we did a healthy cooking class. All of it is basically a lifeline. Even the Zoom classes. I did a social enterprise class. Most of it was online. It was great. Very informative. Very interesting.
“It gave me ideas for alternative futures. I have made so many friendships and learned so much. For anyone feeling isolated or with personal development needs, it is a fantastic place.
“It is just fabulous. Everyone is so welcoming and very open. I wish there had been things like this when I was younger. It is so good for young women. Courses can open your eyes up to your own possibilities and be life changing.”
If you are interested in taking part in the Connect4Women programme, visit https://connect4women.org.