Finding keepers

A joint venture between a day service and an environmental agency in west London is employing people with learning difficulties as volunteer canal keepers. Graham Hopkins reports

A chance meeting has resulted in service users from 219 Lisson Grove, a service based in Westminster, London, which offers daytime care to people with learning difficulties and complex needs, making a clean sweep of things as canal keepers.

Each Monday and Thursday, service users kit themselves out in their uniform (fleece jacket, hat, waterproof and T-shirt) and pick up the litter on a nearby stretch of the Regent’s Canal. They are working volunteers for environmental charity Thames21, which is contracted to British Waterways to identify and solve environmental problems on London’s canals such as litter, harm to wildlife and graffiti grot spots.

Completed in 1820, the nine-mile canal runs from Little Venice in west London to the Thames at Limehouse in the east. It has been described as one of the capital’s best-kept secrets. Walking the stretch with the service users as they worked, it is easy to see why. Hidden from the fray and hustle-bustle of the streets, the canal steals its way along peacefully and beautifully.

And yet this wonderful outdoor activity began innocuously indoors: in a pub. Service manager Susan MacCarthy says: “A group of service users on a community-based activity started chatting to some people from Thames21 who were wearing canal keeper jackets.

“One of the team asked whether it was possible to become involved in the activities. They said ‘sure’. And our partnership was born.”

Thames21 has about 50 canal keeper volunteers on London’s network of canals. Its staff visited the day service and talked about what was expected. MacCarthy says: “We felt that with the right support we had people who would enjoy this meaningful activity in the community; a chance for some real work.”

Canal programmes manager Theo Thomas agrees: “The scheme isn’t just about getting rid of litter, but also about knitting communities together and linking often isolated groups back into the communities in which they live.

“As well as making a fantastic contribution to improving and maintaining the canal bringing benefits to local people and wildlife, the service users have become familiar faces on the towpaths of their patch of canal and people really appreciate their work.”

Originally, three service users and two staff were enrolled as canal keeper volunteers, but now five service users – Robin Plummer, Asma Saleh, Philip Joslin, Irad Chowdhury and Olivia McGahon – take part. “Thames21 came out and showed us the ropes, how to use the pickers and did full risk assessments,” says MacCarthy. “We identified the need for life jackets and learned what to do if we found hypodermic needles and so on.”

Support worker Natalie Arif co-ordinates the project. She says: “We go out twice a week for about an hour each time always working the same part of the canal. It’s a chance to do meaningful work, as a public service and the environmental aspect.”

And so far so good. “It’s going really well,” says Thomas. “The whole volunteering project gives people who care about their local community a bit of a platform. But equally we want volunteers to reflect the communities that the canals flow through. And this project is doing just that.”

There have also been positive spin-offs. One service user had an extreme fear of dogs and would become anxious and shout out when he saw one. But working the canal has led him to control his fear. “Once,” says Thomas, “he grabbed my arm and repeated to himself ‘don’t worry, be happy’. It’s great that we can get such added value as well.”

Other added value might well take the form of public art. “I run a mosaics group at the day service,” says Arif. “We thought it would be nice to make a mosaic that could be displayed perhaps somewhere along the canal. We could have something relevant, such as a fish motif. We’re talking to Thames21 about making that happen.”

Indeed, it seems talking to Thames21, be it in a pub or elsewhere, has proved a profitable pastime for service users, the local community and the canal environment. Sometimes it clearly pays to barge in on a conversation.

Lessons learned

  • It is difficult to provide meaningful and community-based activities for people with learning difficulties and more complex needs. “Everyone in the service has little or no speech,” says MacCarthy. “So, we always need to plan and be very creative. But sometimes chance encounters open up opportunities we hadn’t thought about.”
  • Service users with complex needs have lacked community presence causing them to be treated with fear or pity. Through this project they are engaging with locals on a social level that cuts through prejudice and ignorance.
  • Once you have proven your worth other doors begin to open. “We are looking at graffiti removal and want to involve the service users,” says Thomas.

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