The conversion of a group for learning-disabled adults into a co-operative has brought about huge increases in members’ confidence and ability.
That’s the view of Jane McSweeney of Harlow co-op Elbow Grease. Ms McSweeney has been seconded from a care agency to manage the development of the co-op, which provides a wide range of everyday services such as household and office cleaning, shopping and dog walking. Each piece of work is carried out by a learning-disabled adult accompanied by a volunteer support worker.
“We were running a weekly activity club for learning-disabled adults and were keen to ensure that the club was offering more stimulating and learning-based activities than were available elsewhere. One activity that proved very popular with the members was fundraising and helping other people,” says Ms McSweeney.
“This led us to think of ways of developing this, making the club more sustainable, improving the skills of the members and then using those skills for the benefit of others.”
With the support of the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, the group looked at different options and decided a co-operative was the way forward. “We all liked the fact that being a co-operative gives ownership of the project to the people who use it,” explains Ms McSweeney.
The co-operative was incorporated at the end of August 2010 and a launch event was attended by, among others, local Conservative MP Robert Halfon. The co-operative is currently preparing for its first annual general meeting and, given the distinctive needs of its members, this preparation has been thorough.
“We have done a lot of work with members over the concept of voting, using role playing and games. It’s been great to see members come to terms with the importance of voting and knowing that it’s a lot more serious than just deciding to vote for your friends.”
Elbow Grease has around 30 members with more wishing to join, once additional volunteers have been recruited to support them. While the co-op charges for its services — the fees are under review — it is heavily dependent on funding from Essex County Council, which it hopes will continue in the next financial year. “That funding is vital,” says Ms McSweeney. “We would not be able to continue without it.
“We are reviewing our charging policy which up until now has been charging £5 per hour for all work.”
While she admits this may have to rise, Ms McSweeney is keen not to make the co-operative’s services unaffordable to its clients, who are mostly either retired or on low incomes. “While the co-operative may not have expanded in size, the difference to members has been very noticeable as they’ve started to assume more responsibility.
“We have one member who previously, when doing a cleaning job, would insist on only doing the same small piece of work and never move on from it; he can now independently clean a whole set of offices.”
The co-operative is becoming increasingly well known within Harlow and is helping to keep the town vandalism-free by participating in a scheme called Adopt A Box.
“We have adopted 14 Virgin Media phone and internet boxes in the town. We check them regularly for any graffiti or other vandalism and we have been supplied with paint to keep them looking in good condition.”
The co-operative’s new-found confidence has doubtless been boosted by its winning a number of awards. Its work was praised when it triumphed in the East of England final of the Great British Care Awards in the Care Innovator category. Judges praised the co-op for having “created personal self-worth among 33 people with learning disabilities, overcoming prejudice and delivering services to the local community and recipients of the services.”
Attending the black tie regional final cost the co-op £800 — which it raised from a fashion show. It has, however, decided not to attend the national final later this year as it believes it cannot justify spending the £1,300 required.
More locally, the co-operative won a Harlow Big Society award last October — even thought they didn’t fit any of the categories. When it was nominated, judges were impressed enough to present Elbow Grease with a special award.
As well as securing the co-op’s long term sustainability, Ms McSweeney hopes Elbow Grease’s work will inspire others. “My ultimate dream is that even if we don’t expand, others might hear about us and think that it’s a good idea worth trying where they live,” she says.
• Further information on the Elbow Grease co-operative can be found at www.elbow-grease.co.uk