Esther Bissessar and Wilma Bol at The Mission Practice
- Explore the option to co-create groups with Link Workers to avoid duplication of existing services and fill in gaps in service provision
- Link Workers have little time to dig and find out about your programmes, make it easy for them, understand how they collect knowledge on local offerings
- Understand that the majority of Link Workers’ time is spent dealing with benefits, finance and housing issues, and engagement in the arts may not be the client’s first priority – particularly for those living through challenging life circumstances
Esther and Wilma are Link Workers operating from a GP practice in Bethnal Green, with Esther mostly working with Asylum seekers to support their access to healthcare, statutory and voluntary services and Wilma taking general social prescribing referrals from the GP, other staff and patients themselves.
We first met Esther at a networking event for the Health Tree partnership, a thriving communities funded project, to support social prescribing in the area. She agrees that The Health Tree, largely based at St Margaret’s House, has been a great model for a hub, providing a wide selection of groups for their clients, with clear referral pathways offered by all partners, accessed via St Margaret’s House website.
One of Esther’s clients joined the Woodwork For Wellbeing group at St Margaret’s, keen to get involved in creative activities, and through the networking event, she found out LAH has a city hub available for people to book and run classes. Therefore, hopefully in the future, their clients can get involved in some of the workshops happening organised in the hub. This is just one example of how collaboration has benefitted Esther’s access to community assets for her clients.
A further example of collaboration in the community was a pilot project that Esther supported the Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green to run. The pilot was an English learning and stretching group hosted within the GP practice, which has a space available for small groups to utilise. The group was funded by the Globe Community Project and was run to support unmet needs of the service users, as identified by Esther. This pilot required a lot of outreach and support from Esther, and she found it difficult to balance her time, assisting on this project strategically on top of her other duties. Wilma agreed that this community development aspect of the Link Worker role is important, but emphasised the need to set boundaries and to be clear to what extent they can support. In an ideal world both Link Workers agree that replication of the Bromley By Bow Centre model, of an integrated health and community hub; where a GP surgery has been physically embedded in a community centre, would address some of the barriers to participant engagement that the VCSE currently faces.
“When you start running a group in collaboration with a Link Worker, you are more likely to reach the people who are going to benefit most. And often a GP surgery feels like a trusted and familiar space for people to come to, which can help.” -Wilma
Firstly, utilise Link Worker s’ local intel on what groups already exist and where there are gaps in service provision. Wilma says try to reach out to Link Workers in the early stages of your group/ project development, as they can advise on existing community assets; whether they have clients who could be interested, and identify any initial hurdles to consider related to client participation. Furthermore, they may have the personal contacts who they can recommend to reach out to collaborate or to help further support in your journey.
A question we posed to both Esther and Wilma was: How do you get your information on local services/ groups/ new programmes for your clients?
Esther says for her, local knowledge gathering comes from: subscribing to individual mailing lists, a physical paper catalogue produced by Wilma, word of mouth from local services, WhatsApp groups with other Link Workers in the borough and network meetings like E2 Breakfasts. She acknowledges that it is important to schedule in time to read and process all of the material coming through on a weekly basis, but sometimes it is difficult, due to her workload and prioritisation of urgent client casework. This is why it is important to be able to distil the information about your group/ sessions concisely. Jump back to the of this myth buster for our recommendations on messaging.
In terms of improving relationships with Link Workers and building trust, Esther says that receiving timely replies and updates on referrals they have made, are important for demonstrating investment and keenness, if you have capacity to do so. Wilma suggests having one key contact or administrator within your team who is very visible within the project, that Link Worker s can liaise with for consistency. With an open dialogue, it is easier to be honest when you can support a client versus when a client is not the right fit for the service you are offering.
How do you find introducing and communicating cultural opportunities, does it come easily to you, or is there anything the sector can do to make offerings more accessible and easily understood for both Link Worker and client?
Link Workers take the time to have person-centred conversations with their clients over 6-12 sessions on average. Understanding the overarching framework and principles which they operate within, is important for understanding where your group/ project might fit into that timeline. The reality of the situation is that the majority of the Link Worker s time is taken up by issues around finances, benefits and housing. Esther notes that ‘One conversation may be completely different to the next and identify completely different needs’. In this way, it may take multiple conversations and gaining trust, to start addressing the ‘non essential’ needs of a client. Wilma is a strong advocate for the fact that arts and culture can improve confidence and resilience in her clients, as they endure long term problems related to both physical and social determinants of health that may not always be resolvable. Speaking about one of her clients, Wilma says ‘they probably don’t realise how important it is for their wellbeing to do something different and creative’, however it is important to acknowledge that these people may not be physically or mentally ready to do these things that could be beneficial. Consequently, these conversations are usually very light touch, to ensure that there is no ‘I’m telling you what’s good for you’ and all of the conversations are being led by the desires and motivations the client brings to the table.
‘When people go through serious life events, and then you try and introduce art and culture, it can sometimes feel patronising to them’ – Wilma
As Wilma emphasises, arts and culture may not consciously be on a client’s radar, and conversations to draw out their creative interests naturally take time. It may involve asking open questions such as ‘What are the things you enjoyed doing when you were younger?’ and helping people to recognise that creativity manifests itself in so many different aspects of our lives, and in turn improves our health.