Val Henney: offering Help on Your Doorstep

Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 11 seconds

Val Henney: “a coffee from Costa is my treat.” (c) islington faces

Everyone has a story. When did you last talk to a neighbour? For Val Henney, who works part time as a Good Neighbourhood Coordinator, neighbourliness has become a way of life. Here she explains how simple neighbourliness is helping people on the New River Green Estate and Peabody King’s Cross Ten Estate get to know each other better. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Because everyone knows her, Val Henney has a problem getting around Islington quickly. On the way to meet Islington Faces she was spotted by a New River Estate neighbour, who insisted she popped into the coffee morning at Walter Sickert, the estate’s community centre. Thanks to her job on this estate a year or so ago there are also yoga classes and mindfulness (just £1), plus free football, stay & play for the kids, a gardening club and a herb area for anyone to enjoy.

Born in the Royal Free Hospital – now housing – on Liverpool Road, Val spent her early years in Sutton Dwellings on Upper Street. Back then a two bed flat for a family was basic. “We didn’t have a bathroom! There was a bath in the kitchen so when mum was cooking dinner I was having a bath next to her,” remembers Val, 53. “They were doing a refurb when I was 11 and we had the option to stay, or go to the Marquess Estate (built in the 1970s) now called the New River) where we’d have a bathroom with a toilet, and another toilet and a dining room as well as a living room. It felt wow,” says Val who has happy memories of growing up on this estate just off Essex Road. Back then loads of people used the social club which was run by the residents including her family. “Mum did a kids’ disco and yoga, and my Dad helped with football and the bar,” says Val.

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“Back in the day people seemed more open to knowing their neighbours and my Nan lived near to me. Over the years families couldn’t live so close and a lot of people moved away,” says Val who raised her three daughters and son here, surviving the years when the estate had a reputation for vandalism and crime. “I know for a fact that because we had a good youth club it kept the kids on the straight and narrow. I didn’t get 13 weeks holiday so relied on the club to have activities, trips and teach them skills like cooking. This helped feed the children especially as some parents could not afford too.”

For 15 years Val worked in the fitness industry. “It was unsociable working hours and I was looking to change jobs,” she says, when she spotted a poster for a new role as Connect Advisor for Help On Your Door Step in Canonbury with 9am-5pm hours back in 2009, applied and secured the job. As part of a team of six she helped the most isolated local residents with any issues they had and referred them to partner organisations to get the right support needed. In 2011 she took on the new role as a Good Neighbour Coordinator which aims to improve the Health & Wellbeing of around 1,500 residents. This was such a success that with help from Islington Giving, Islington NHS’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) Peabody Trust & Islington Council the scheme expanded. So in 2016 Val started work on the Peabody King’s Cross Ten Estates where around 1,600 people live. There are now four Good Neighbourhood Schemes as there are also programmes on the Andover Estate and Bemerton Estate in Cally.

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“Nowadays it is hard to get volunteers,” says Val explaining some of the challenges neighbourhoods face.

“People work very long hours, so the people around are the one with the illnesses – but the Good Neighbourhood Scheme works on the premise that everyone’s got something to give. And if you can make people’s confidence better then they will volunteer.”

That’s just one reason why Val is a passionate supporter of spaces that bring the community together. “Community centres are a place to go for a coffee morning, or do arts and crafts or an activity which is free, or low cost. They are really important because a lot of people we work with in Islington are the most isolated, because of poor health or depression, and they don’t tend to venture far because their confidence is low. Some of them are on medication so going to places further away is another barrier. A lot of people have anxiety, so going out of the house for long periods, or on a bus, raises their anxiety more.

We battle now with the community centres to get space, because they are used for private classes, which are no way affordable for the community. The centres are there for us. Surely part of our rates goes on having a community centre that we should be able to use?” says Val.

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Val Henney: “I like the whole area around Angel.”

Places Val Henney likes in Islington

  • I really like Waterside, 50 Dame Street, the N1 youth club (on what used to be the Packington Estate, now Hyde Housing). It’s so lovely, by the canal and it goes underground too.
  • I’ve just been introduced to the Skip Garden in King’s Cross. Wow! I love the way it is run (by Global Generation), the way it looks and the way they get the community involved. They have a Friday Club and run things in the school holidays where kids learn to grow things, pick them and then cook. I wasn’t sure it was for my residents – all those building are quite off-putting but actually going there I feel it’s definitely something to pursue and take some of our residents along.”
  • I do like the whole area around Angel but I do feel for a lot of people it’s become somewhere they can’t afford to go to now when it used to be their Angel with a Woolworths and a lot of market stalls rather than food stalls. It’s always been a place with atmosphere and Angel Central shopping centre has some wonderful free things going on in the six week summer holiday. I went there with my grandchildren so they could play on the grass lawn and I could sit on the deckchair. You see a lot of mums having a break and people watching on the grass. I’ve petted reindeer there and this summer my grandsons did a hoola hoop class. I thought it would be something only the girls will do. It was great fun so I bought hoops for £1.99 in Tiger – it’s a change from being on the console.
  • “The New River Walk is on my doorstep, it’s such a nice place by an estate where we haven’t got much green space. It’s full of character with trees, bushes, the river and a little trail, though there are not so many ducks as they’ve been eaten by the fox. Going there feels very therapeutic and safe. It’s well maintained too. People are looking after it – years ago you’d seen prams in it. Not now.”

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A lot like the film ‘I Daniel Blake’
Last year (September 2017) Islington was named as the worst place in England for a woman to live – thanks to its deprivation levels, air pollution and unaffordable housing (following research by Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, plus see some summaries here from St Mary’s Upper Street). Val wasn’t surprised but despite knowing her neighbourhood really well, she admits that it can be hard to notice how hard life can be for some of Islington’s residents.

“I’ve always been in a family where we look out for each other. Family is very important to me,” says Val whose three daughters and son all live locally still. But that’s not everyone’s experience as over the years with the lack of affordable housing families have been forced to split up and move out of the area.

“In blocks people don’t really know each other any more. I didn’t realise there was so much poverty,” she says. “It was only when I started doing door knocking that I realised some people haven’t even got the money for a sofa or white goods. Maybe they’ve lost a job, or their health has deteriorated. And people can be so proud – after their first experience of the job centre and being made to feel they aren’t worth anything, they’re not going back. They’re not telling their families, so they have to sell things. Help On Your Doorstep and the Good Neighbourhood scheme finds people and gets them back into the community; it builds their confidence up,” says Val.

Val is a woman who is looking out for a lot of people – it’s not just her job, she also takes her turn looking after her young grandsons. But she doesn’t seem burdened by anything she does. “This job inspires me,” she explains. “You see how people make other people stronger, even when you are struggling in day-to-day life.”

For years pundits have said that volunteering is good for you. Now thanks to the Good Neighbourhood Scheme and the warmth of people like Val, a whole lot more people in Islington are finding reasons to open their door and talk to the neighbours. Good Neighbours Schemes now operate on:

Good Neighbours work with residents to find and own solutions to local issues such as isolation, improving health and wellbeing, and activities for all the community. A key element here is about increasing the sense of neighbourliness. Find out more about good ideas for community involvement around Islington by looking at www.islingtongiving.org.uk twitter @isgiv

Over to you If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com. If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola