IT STARTS WITH A SMILE
Text by Community Critic Agnes Otuedon
Drawings by Micah Hayden and Severin Bunse
“If you feel a smile begin, don’t leave it undetected. Let's start an epidemic quick, and get the world infected!" Spike Milligan
The Smile Project is a new and exciting project developed by local charity Re-Instate who support disabled people,
young people, and those struggling with their mental health in finding employment.
Gillian and Margaret are the group’s facilitators. Gillian has worked in community mental health and Margaret has an artistic background which compliments the arts-based focus of the group. They have received intensive specialist training to support their work facilitating the group which means they are certified official smilers.
Gillian told me how the group came about. After Covid, there was a negative atmosphere in the community
and the aim of the Smile Project was to provide a safe space where people could forget their worries, reduce their isolation and get smiling again. Smile welcomes local people from all backgrounds and abilities. The poem by Spike Milligan above aptly describes the message the group wishes to convey — it is the group’s motto!
People that engage frequently with public services are often labeled by their disability. What is important
to the members of the Smile Project is that they are not identified by their problems and instead, the focus is on who they are as individuals. Margaret highlights the organic nature of the Smile Project and their willingness to adapt the sessions to suit the needs of the attendees. The end goal is to roll the programme out nationally so that other communities can benefit from the programme.
I spoke to one of the project’s group members who told me she had come out of an abusive relationship. She said that she had been depressed and that joining the group had given her confidence. Going to the meetings had given her a reason to leave her home and have something new to look forward to. She told me that she had made new friends at the project and that she had been able to explore her previous interest in art. She described her progress as “baby steps!” but she has begun to learn to trust people again, and she is now pursuing a career in teaching.
She said that whenever she is feeling down, Gillian and Margaret are always there in person or at the end of the telephone to support her with advice and reassurance. She describes them as real friends and says that she feels her soul is in the Smile Project because it has given her the opportunity to meet different people and it has had a positive impact on her mental health.
Gillian and Margaret work interactively with group members through varied activities including laughing, yoga and fun group discussions where you may be asked, ”What made you smile today?!” Margaret tells me that by the end of the session people find themselves feeling in a much better mood, even smiling. These friendly Smile Ambassadors are full of enthusiasm and commitment to the Smile Project, and they will go out of their way to make you feel like a welcome, valued member of the group.
Gillian ends our chat by saying that if you feel like smiling or running your own Smile Project, then please get in touch if you are over 18. The World Health Organization contends that people affected by crisis will experience psychological distress and those with pre-existing conditions are particularly vulnerable. Community social projects such as the Smile Project are vital to help excluded or isolated people cope with difficult circumstances. Given the cost of living crisis and the continued isolation from the pandemic that many people in this country are experiencing, many of us could benefit from the caring and safe atmosphere of the Smile Project. It would be great to see the offer extend beyond Bexley to reach a national presence.
Re-Instate is a charity working to improve opportunities and quality of life for people experiencing mental ill-health, people with learning disabilities, autistic adults and young people in Bexley, and their project has been produced as part of Bexley Collective, a creative co-creation programme developed by Three Rivers, in partnership with 64 Million Artists and Bexley Voluntary Service Council.