Making play count – one councillor’s story
This is the story behind how I got the community together to develop a new play space for all children, where disabled children can play alongside their peers, and the lessons I learnt about the hard slog that is fundraising…
Once I had been elected as a councillor I was able to champion a project which was close to my heart – improvements to Bishops Stortford‘s town centre play park, and in particular, the kinds of enhancements which would make it usable by disabled children. I mentioned this to a couple of local entrepreneurs who immediately pledged support. From this point there was no looking back, and I had to make the plan a reality.
Although the Council was approached, and contributed very generously, the funds needed to make a real difference could only be generated by fundraising. Backed by the support of the entrepreneurs, the Council, and local people, I started the long hard vigil of seeking grant funding for my project. I have never worked as a fundraiser, either professionally or voluntarily. Inevitably this was a learning process for me. It is also a process which is bound to lead to disappointments amidst the moments of elation where grant applications meet with success.
There are pots of money out there, but your project must exactly meet the criteria set by the funder. This may relate to geographic restrictions, issues such as the proposed age range of the ultimate beneficiaries, the degree to which, say, disabled people will benefit, how much money one can raise from different sources to match the proposed grant, how much one is applying for, the value of the project overall, the timeframe within which the money must be spent, and then the whole question of the luck of the timing of the application, which can determine whether the cupboard is well stocked or is bare. It can feel like a lottery, except that there is a substantial amount of research to do to improve one’s chances beyond a zero level of chance, and the sheer time needed to complete the forms is something I could not imagine before I started.
What’s more, we had to select the equipment to be included and which existing equipment should be removed. This involved a significant time commitment to taking soundings and letting democracy work. Believe me, parents and children have strong views which can be expressed in ways that demand a fairly thick skin at times, but I learnt to take that in my stride.
And getting all of this aligned so that the project could start at a time of year that is suitable to work on a park seemed little short of a nightmare. But the nightmare of obsession produced the outcome of the dream. I repaid the faith of the entrepreneurs by being a successful philanthropic entrepreneur.
Now we have a facility where disabled children can play alongside other children, and a disabled parent can play with their able bodied child. We “launched” the new park facilities in April, on an unseasonably freezing overcast day. Nothing daunted, the children ate ice creams which local businesses had sponsored so they cost nothing to the parents, and we were fortunate to have Mark Prisk, our local MP, at the celebration to make a rousing speech, and our Mayor Allen Burlton to open proceedings. The event was also covered by our local newspaper.
Now the celebrations are calming down, the question is what good this will do. As Mark Prisk MP put it, “Children’s play facilities are vital, and should be open to families of whatever financial means.”
These facilities are free to use and benefit all children. And following these works they particularly benefit the disabled, which marks a significant departure in the town’s provision for its people.
I was elected Deputy Mayor of Bishop’s Stortford in May 2012. If I am Mayor next year then I plan to focus on “Children’s Lifestyles Count”.