Maghera Big Lunch connects people around Glen school

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Disconnected communities cost Northern Ireland £1.69 billion per year, according to a new study commissioned by Eden Project Communities and The Big Lunch.

According to the research, which was carried out by leading economics consultancy the Centre of Economics and Business Research (Cebr), neighbourliness has substantial economic benefits to UK society, representing an annual saving of £1.73 billion per year.

This saving comes from sharing between neighbours, an increase in social connection and reductions in the demands on public services such as healthcare, social care, welfare and the environment.

In response, Mid Ulster resident Kate Clifford worked with her local PTA to host their first Big Lunch last year and said the experience was a revelation and really enhanced relationships within her community.

“We ran a Big Lunch last year with Friends of  St. Patricks Glen Primary school a Parent Teacher Association in Maghera. We wanted to run an event for whole community, not just for the school.

We put a lot of effort into planning an outdoor picnic, but then the day was a complete washout, with pouring rain, and in the end we thought about cancelling the event. After a number of panic phonecalls and some creative thinking, we decided to offer an “afternoon tea” experience for everyone in the school hall that afternoon.  It turned out to be one of the most successful events I’ve ever been to”

“We had initially planned a fun day with a big picnic event - with outdoor games, facepainting, and all sorts of activities. But the weather stopped all of that. Despite attempts to cancel the event loads of people wanted it to go ahead and wanted to help. We had about 20 volunteers in the end, not just the PTA members, but also lots of former students from the school. These teenagers came along and offered to do hair, nails and facepaint for the primary school kids. There are 156 kids in the school and most of the parents had already baked or cooked something to share.  In the end the smaller, replanned afternoon tea event was a great success. Many people came after Sunday dinner because it was Fathers Day and it gave families something to do on a wet afternoon. Others chose to celebrate their father’s day with us.  We had whole families coming together and reconnecting. We had grannies and grandads in the hall talking about their times in the 2 former local schools which St Patrick’s Glen had replaced and they had opportunities to reconnect with old friends. We couldn’t get them out the door at the end, they were having a ball.”

“More than anything though, we had such fun planning it,” said Kate. “Even if the event had never happened, the planning sessions built up friendships and connections across the community and we were thrilled with the level of support.  I didn’t know many of the other parents at all until planning this event as I’m no longer in the PTA.  But when I suggested holding a Big Lunch as a fundraiser they jumped at it and in the end we raised £480.

“We are a dispersed rural community, with all of the issues of isolation, poverty, under-employment and under funding for facilities and services. But the PTA supports the school to make school events and school trips affordable for the children and their families. It raises funds to help to buy equipment and extras for the school”

“The Big Lunch day was an opportunity to bring the community together outside of normal daily life. We had support from other schools, the council and groups in the area during the planning.”

“We can’t emphasise the value of holding a day like this. The sense of belonging - you can’t underestimate how that impacts on people’s health and wellbeing. I work as the Director of Rural Community Network NI and and know the immeasurable value of strong community spirit in a rural community. Thanks to the St Patricks Glen  PTA and the opportunity to be a part of events and activities like the big lunch this blow-in feels at much more at home here now.”

Eden Project Communities Northern Ireland Manager Grainne McCloskey said: “The Big Lunch is a great first step that just about anyone can take towards bringing their community together and making it a better place to live. It starts with just knocking a neighbour’s door.

“We would love to see a Big Lunch on every street and in every town across Northern Ireland, and we are here to help.

“If there are people in the Mid Ulster area who are thinking about holding a Big Lunch, we are here to connect them with others who have already taken the leap. The vast majority of people who have held one say they would recommend the initiative to anyone and they are willing to offer their support. There is a great sense of camaraderie and welcome in our network.”

If anyone would like more information on Eden Project Communities and The Big Lunch, please visit the website www.edenprojectcommunities/thebiglunch or contact gmccloskey@edenproject.com