Representing the Co-operative Movement in a star-studded New Year’s Honour list for 2008 was dedicated co-operator Margaret Elliott.
While celebrities like Kylie Minogue and Michael Parkinson captured the national media attention, the founder of Sunderland Homecare Associates was as pleased as any superstar to be awarded a ‘gong’.
Her joy was still strong days after the announcement: “It’s a great honour and I have been on cloud nine for several weeks,” she says. “I actually found out about it three weeks before the list was published, but I had to keep it quiet.
“I’m really excited about the prospect of rubbing shoulders with a star like Kylie when I go to Buckingham Palace to receive the award.”
The recognition of the Sunderland Homecare Associates (SHA) and the Co-op and social enterprise movements is the most important aspect of the OBE, said Mrs Elliott: “At least the sector is getting some recognition, but I wish I could divide it between everyone.
“When, eventually, I was able to tell my colleagues about the honour there was a real buzz around the office. Everyone was dumbstruck at first, then pleased and euphoric. Everyone’s so pleased for me. It gave us all a big boost.”
She believes this kind of recognition will make communities see social enterprises and co-operatives are a viable business option and take the work they do more seriously.
Mrs Elliott also led the SHA to be winners of the 2006 Enterprising Solutions Awards — the national awards ceremony of the Social Enterprise Coalition.
The first encounter with co-operation for Mrs Elliott was when her husband worked for the building co-op Sunderlandia in the 1970s. She witnessed the positive impact this had on the community and decided she could use the co-operative model to help women in the area. So, soon after discovering the Movement, she started up her first co-op, Little Women, which was a food shop with a nursery above it.
Says Mrs Elliott: “I gathered a group of women friends together who were in the same boat as myself, with no qualifications and all of us with small bairns. We began to meet to share ideas and it just developed from there.”
The co-op grew and diversified to become Sunderland Homecare Associates in the 1990s. It now offers a range of home care packages and care services in Sunderland; employs 220 staff and delivers over 4,000 hours of care each week. “SHA is all about participation and giving people the opportunity to put their ideas forward,” says Mrs Elliott.
The staff often come to them with no qualifications and leave having successfully completed a range of NVQs.
One of the many success stories is Joan Hutchinson, who joined the care group ten years ago and has worked her way up to becoming the social care contract manager of the South Tyneside branch of Care and Share Associates (CASA).
The CASA organisation developed following the success of SHA with a plan to replicate the co-operative model nationwide and Mrs Elliott hopes the publicity from her OBE will give CASA a boost and raise awareness of the sector.
The South Tyneside branch has already won a number of care contracts, which are up and running in Manchester, Newcastle and North Tyneside. Mrs Elliot is hoping that the Hull branch will start to take off too.
Locally SHA is also changing its offering. They are planning an internet cafe in a block of flats, which will offer meals to its elderly residents. They are also working with people with learning difficulties.
Mrs Elliott believes that the time is right for social enterprise to make its mark and is due to address an all-Party meeting of MPs at Westminster later this month.
She says: “I’ll be speaking about employee ownership and the benefits it offers. We want the Government to give social enterprise concessions and let the sector flourish as the benefits to the community are amazing.”
Mrs Elliott has seen at first hand on visits to countries including Ireland, Hong Kong and Japan how people all over the world are embracing the social enterprise ethos and beginning to become aware of its benefits.
“This is our year, as long as we push for it. There is a lot of interest out there, especially in Northern Ireland, Japan and China,” adds Mrs Elliott. “The interest is worldwide. We need to be ready to push our sector — we know it’s good, but lots of people don’t.
“We need to tell people about it and get them to convert and start up new social enterprises; we need to be shouting much louder.”