Inspirational Sutton Prt 1: Hannah Simnett & Cherished
Part 1 of a series of extracts from the book Inspirational Sutton due to be published later this year. Inspirational Sutton is a personal view of what makes the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield more than a suburban cliche – be that inspiration from third sector organisations, businesses, sports clubs and groups, the arts or individuals.
“The word cherished means to be held dear, to be treasured, something precious.”
Hannah Simnett & Cherished
I first met Hannah Simnett at The Gap Sutton Coldfield where she was working as a volunteer, only she was Hannah Borg then, a university student sweating over a final year thesis. Not that she had any need to worry. She passed her BA with flying colours. But then, that is Hannah Simnett. A talented and dedicated young woman that never gives anything less than 100%.
It could be argued that the term passion is somewhat overused these days – there isn’t a talent show contestant on TV that hasn’t been passionate about her singing, his dancing, their eating of Ferrero Rocher chocolates against the clock, but Hannah is one of those few people, a rare breed one might say, where the word isn’t a cliche.
The eldest of three girls, Hannah is a committed Christian with firm beliefs and a strong, innate, desire to help others.
At the age of 14 she was in a car passing a young offenders centre. She stared out of the car window and thought how much she wanted to help them, how there was something inside her that made her want to do it.
Shortly after that first meeting at the Gap, Hannah required some assistance editing together a collection of video clips, a talking heads type montage, and having some experience in that area I offered to help. We spent a short time pulling together the clips she had filmed, reordering them, reordering them again, and throwing in a few simple transitions. I was then left to get on with the more ‘laborious ’ aspects of the post production ‘stuff’. It was during that initial brief off-line edit that I gained an insight into the work that she was doing. What her organisation, Cherished, was all about and how there was no doubt that she was going to make a success of it.
World’s Smallest Office
It was quite soon after that when Hannah moved into what had to be the World’s smallest office. The Gap Sutton Coldfield is one of the services running out of the Our Place Community Hub and when Hannah heard of the small but vacant office that had become available she leapt at the opportunity. Now while it may have looked to many to be little more than a glorified cupboard it was in fact so much more. It was a step. A workspace that wasn’t also a bedroom, a kitchen, a sofa. Size isn’t everything they say and that first office, that first small step, was as good as a giant leap for Cherished.
Indeed it was from there that the early shoots of Cherished started to flourish. It was from there that Hannah made her application to incorporate Cherished as a Community Interest Company and it was from there that the first significant funding bids were made. Made but not always granted. As many fundraiser will tell you, money, especially for new organisations with a minimal track record, is not easy to come by.
What is Cherished?
My first actual interview with Hannah was in September 2012 for Sutton Coldfield Local. She began by explaining how Cherished works with young girls who have been identified as having self esteem issues. How it does this through the delivery of a modular course based program delivered over a period of eight to twelve weeks.
The course looks at friendships, personal confidence, relationships and aspirations through activities, discussions and media. Group sizes range between four to eight participants.
Once the course commences the girls are paired up with a mentor for one-to-one support, providing an opportunity for them to look at some of the issues raised in more depth.
Depending on the needs of the young girls the individual mentoring can continue throughout their time in secondary school, although more typically it is between two and twelve months.
Many of the girls have self-esteem issues but for some the road they are on is darker. On the verge of exclusion from school and with a bleak future Hannah and her team at Cherished are oft-times a last resort. A final chance to steer away from the slippiest of slippery slopes.
Cherished is also helping younger girls too. Preparing them for secondary school by working with pupils from primary years five and six. In addition to working within schools the organisation runs a weekly group called Blossom. The group aims to help the girls explore areas such as peer pressure, kindness and friendship. Blossom implements a number of techniques and uses a variety of mediums to achieve its aim although to be fair, most do appear to include getting messy to some degree.
This need for young girls to look at self-esteem and to talk about related issues was identified by Hannah as a common problem when she was carrying out her youth work studies and, combined with her own experiences, was the driving force behind her need to do something.
Since that first interview the organisation has continued to grow and now delivers conferences, community groups and training for young girls, their families and the professionals that work with them.
Just how much Cherished has developed was evident at the first of those conferences held in October 2015. The conference attracted a number of high profile speakers and provided activities aimed at teaching girls valuable life lessons, including ‘Celebrating being a girl’, ‘Your voice matters’ and ‘When life doesn’t go how you had hoped’.
Not that any of this has been easy. Hannah is dedicated and driven and loves what she does but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been sleepless nights, long hours, moments of frustration and elevated levels of stress. It comes with the job. But Hannah’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Hannah and Cherished have been recognised by a variety of bodies for the difference they are making.
At an award ceremony celebrating Sutton Coldfield and organised by Sutton Coldfield Local in 2013, Cherished received the Special Recognition Award as a result of the outstanding response from the public during the nominations process.
In 2015, the organisation received the West Midlands Police, Women in Policing Special Recognition Award for Making an Outstanding Difference to the Lives of Young Girls.
And in 2016, Hannah received the Sutton Coldfield Soroptimist’s Inspiring Woman of the Year Award.
But before we get carried away with all that – well deserved they all are – let’s take a moment to remember that while awards help promote an organisation’s work and provide much needed credibility they don’t pay the office rent, or fund training, or cover the cost of running conferences, or indeed any of the myriad of expenses the day-to-day running of a growing organisation generates.
Recognition of a Different Kind
There was little income in the early days and often Hannah would say she didn’t know where the next month’s office rent was coming from. Funding was hard to come by and it was only the dedication of the volunteers that kept things going, that helped to meet the need that was so obviously there.
And then in 2016 there was recognition of a different kind. The kind that doesn’t sit on a shelf; Or get used as a paper weight. In 2016 things took a transformational turn, pushing Cherished into a whole new phase.
After hour upon hour of form filling, telephone interviews and personal visits, Cherished was awarded a £250,000 grant over 5 years from the Big Lottery.
Cherished was the smallest of the organisations in that particular round of applications to receive an award and in Hannah’s own words it was considered a bit of a risk by Big Lottery, but once again the meaningful difference she and her volunteers were already making was evident.
The organisation went from practically nothing to being able to employ three new members of staff and expand its work, delivering more groups, providing more mentoring, more training, developing new resources and organising bigger conferences. Oh, and it has been able to make an appreciable increase in its office space.
In Just Five Years
In just five years Hannah Simnett has taken an idea and nurtured it into one of Sutton Coldfield’s most significant services for young girls. I’ll leave the final few words to her:
“The media can be quite damaging towards the way young girls feel about themselves, so actually highlighting it and talk with girls, bringing truth into their lives is something I feel quite passionately about.
“The word cherished means to be held dear, to be treasured, something precious. There is a lot of negative media coverage about young people when actually, spending time with so many damaged young people, they just need to be listened to. Listening and committing yourself to a young person, that can transform them. The message I would give about Cherished is that it is about ongoing commitment, seeing the best in a young girl, listening and supporting them and giving them hope.” Hannah Simnett.