The last time Bootle closed as a town was the air raids in the Second World War. With the docks harbouring the escort ships for the Atlantic convoys, the town was flattened by bombing, with only one in ten houses still standing by the end of the war.
In terms of housing and poverty, the town today is classed as one of the most disadvantaged in the UK, yet it has some extraordinary strengths, one of which is some of the women of Bootle, formed into a remarkable community charity, the Venus Centre.
As a small tile on a Zoom screen, I was observer a few days back for the kick-off session in which the Venus founder, Lorraine Webb, explained its work to the team formed by Pilotlight to support her and the team over a ten month structured programme of work.
Under the COVID-19 lockdown, the Venus Centre has kept the community active and engaged across the town with an armful of services to support local families on screen and on phone. With lockdown easing, it looks as if some face to face services at the Centre can now restart.
Lorraine co-founded the Venus Centre as a way to promote young women’s health. By training up local women, she could get health messages to women in a form that they could understand and trust. The myth that you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up died in Bootle later that year.
She didn’t start the charity in order to start a charity; instead it was simply a way to do what she knew needed to be done.
Founded in 1994, the idea of a centre was at the heart of what emerged, because listening to the women that came helped to shape their ideas of what services would work. They started in one place, moved after a fire, were hosted by the Sefton Women’s Advisory Network, and then moved again to rent three shop units, which they knocked together and renovated over three years using programmes to support apprentices in the building trade.
In the aftermath of community opposition to its initial plans for ‘housing market renewal’, the local authority worked hard to rebuild relations, including recognising the Venus Centre with the offer of support for a new building that is now at the heart of Lorraine and the charity’s plans for the future.
The core programmes run by the Venus Centre focus on family support, housing and resettlement and mental health and well-being. It is a women’s organisation and proud to be so, but the support it offers is open to all. Over the lockdown, the Centre has run an emergency hostel in the area, which, as elsewhere, has proved to be an unexpected lifeline in the work to tackle the prevalence of rough sleeping. One man who has slept under a bridge for six years, reports Lorraine, now sleeps indoors (on the floor) and he is happy.
The Venus Centre is one of the small to medium sized charities that is looking to Pilotlight for support this year. As winners of a 2020 Weston Charity Award from the Garfield Weston Foundation, what they receive, free to access, is a structured programme of support from a team of business and charity leaders designed to build their confidence and professional skills around strategy. “I feel very lucky to have this support” says Lorraine.
Pilotlight brings together the worlds of business (which pays for the service and gifts the time) and charity and creates a bridge for the common good. It works because of the quality of the programme.
In a world in which traditionally good intentions were enough, Pilotlight has a proven impact. Independent evaluation shows that 94% of people participating with Pilotlight from business see an increase in their coaching skills while the charities that benefit currently see increases within two years on average of 36% in their reach and 40% in their income.
There is a new window of applications now open for charities and social enterprises that want to take part in other programmes run by Pilotlight.
So please spread the word – follow Lorraine, follow the women of Bootle.