Manchester’s Unsung Heroes: Charity campaigner helps ‘change people’s lives’ through community projects

By Michael Kelleher

A forward-thinking charity is making waves across Greater Manchester by helping ordinary people to do extraordinary things within their communities.

In 2011 and 2012, 220,306 people benefited directly from services made possible by funding from Forever Manchester, with £2.7million awarded in gifts to 600 community projects.

Head of community building, Gary Loftus, is at the forefront of that work and he is delighted with the difference his charity are making in Greater Manchester’s communities.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” he said. “Some of the feedback that we are getting on the work that we are doing for people is staggering.

“We try and help people have a better quality of life. There are plenty of brilliant people in every neighbourhood and it is our job to help them shine.

“If you can help people’s lives change because of your knowledge, experience and resource, then that is just priceless to me.”

Gary has been involved in charity work since 2000 and joined Forever Manchester nine years ago as a volunteer.

“I started off in a programme called New Deal for Communities as a part-time support worker in 2000 in East Manchester,” he said.

“I have worked with Forever Manchester for seven years but I started off as a volunteer, as a panel member, two years before that.

“I work as the head of community building. I implement the asset-based community development and what we call strength-based approaches to community building.

“Rather than focusing on what is wrong with neighbourhoods, we encourage residents to look at what they can improve and then we help them do that.”

Forever Manchester was first established as Manchester Community Trust almost 25 years ago but was rebranded five years ago.

It is one of 55 community foundations in the UK and covers ten boroughs around Greater Manchester.

The charity has recently adopted a new approach to assisting communities called ‘asset-based community development’ which has proved a huge success across Greater Manchester.

This policy seeks to build on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations and the supportive functions of local institutions.

This approach gets the most out of existing local assets and Gary is adamant that it is the best way to ensure sustainable community development.

“We have been working on a methodology for the last two years called ‘asset-based community development’, which was a massive move for us as an organisation,” he said.

“We decided to do the kind of intense work that we had not typically done before as a foundation because we had usually funded people through the grants programme.

“We have been working for neighbourhoods across Manchester with community builders to facilitate activity in the neighbourhood.”

Forever Manchester make a point of not labelling areas in need of help and instead prefer to focus on the positives assets communities already have in place and build upon them.

“We aim to strip back labels like ‘deprived’ and ‘deficient’,” Gary said.

“Our aim is to get people connected in these neighbourhoods, with a view that positives outcomes will follow, if you start from a glass half-full perspective.

“We are not naive enough to say that no problems exist in these places, but it is important to shift perceptions.

“We do not like areas to be labelled as ‘deprived’ or ‘deficient’ because that brings about negative connotations for people who live there and people from outside the area.”

Gary is delighted with the progress Forever Manchester are making and admitted he gets great satisfaction from helping others improve their communities.

“It’s great to be able to share my experience of the work I have done in East Manchester over the last 12 years with other people and help them improve their situations,” he said.

“When you have done a video of what you have achieved and you play it in the community centre and one of the women who has never been on TV before starts crying, it is very emotional.

“You think to yourself ‘that’s what we are here for’ and that’s why we do what we do’.

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