Royal recognition for Lisburn’s one and only Atlas Women’s Centre

There were celebrations in Lisburn this week when it was revealed that Atlas Women’s Centre is to receive the prestigious Queen’s Award.

Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 12:18 pm

The Centre, which is based in Bachelor’s Walk, provides enjoyable community learning and education within an integrated, accessible, neutral and non-threatening environment.

Atlas, which stands for Adult Training Learning And Support, aims to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged adults and families living in Lisburn City and the surrounding rural areas.

The Centre manager, Gay Sherry-Bingham, said she was thrilled at the recognition for all the hard work of staff and volunteers at Atlas.

Centre Manager Gay Sherry Bingham with Atlas staff

“We are all so delighted to receive this award, what an accolade for all the volunteers, Atlas Women’s Centre and Lisburn City,” she said.

“We are so proud of ourselves and can’t wait to celebrate together now that restrictions are easing.”

Atlas offers a wide range of classes and support for local people, anything from history, art, and personal development to health and wellbeing.

As well as creche facilities, the centre also offers free counselling and a Community Cafe providing affordable home cooked food and drinks.

Atlas received a grant from Whitemountain to help them renovate a derelict building and garden to create a community hub. Russell Drew (Whitemountain), Paul Givan MLA, Mandy Gilmore (Atlas Women’s Centre), Pat Catney MLA, Gay Sherry-Bingham (Atlas Women’s Centre), Alderman James Tinsley

“PreCovid-19 there was an average of 30 activities/courses/programmes running weekly which were attended by an average of 400 women, men and children,” explained Gay.

“Unfortunately this has now reduced significantly due to mitigating measures during Coronavirus Covid-19.”

Despite the restrictions due to the pandemic, Atlas has still been offering much needed support to the community over the last year.

Keen to help out wherever possible during the difficult year, volunteers with Atlas , who called themselves ‘scrubbers’, helped to sew scrubs for frontline staff.

Gay and Mandy from Atlas getting to work on cutting material to make scrubs

During the last year, they have made 541 scrubs, bags, hats and masks for ScrubsNI, local care homes and hospitals.

“The staff who were working from the office, including myself, needed a few dress making lessons, but got there in the end,” said Gay.

“The scrubbers have told me that making PPE for ScrubsNI, local care homes and masks for the local community was stressful and hard going but they felt useful and needed, and it gave them something to focus on during this very difficult, stressful time.”

One of the frontline workers who received scrubs from Atlas said: “I work nights and there is never enough PPE or the right size.

Isobel Lowry sewing scrubs

“This really mattered to me. Your scrubs and hats brought colour into a place which was quite gloomy at times. We really couldn’t believe the amount, the quality and the little hearts. So touching that you thought of us, I hope you realise that you did your bit. You removed additional stress and made me and a lot of others very happy.”

Atlas volunteers also reached out to the most vulnerable in the community, lending a helping hand wherever possible.

They have carried out approximately 2,400 home deliveries of food, adult and children mental health and educational activities, toiletries, gardening items, books, flowers, Atlas iPads, jigsaws, games and essential items and top-ups.

Volunteers have also helped with community gardening, shopping, collection and delivery of prescriptions and daily newspapers for those shielding or living in fear.

Cafe volunteers made soups, stew and cakes with donated food and delivered it to frontline workers and those shielding.

They also made and delivered a few birthday cakes to those that live alone and attend Atlas.

Atlas volunteer Eileen Irvine helping to sew PPE during the lockdown

The most recent project undertaken by volunteers at the Centre is the community garden.

“Volunteers are integral within all Atlas departments,” continued Gay. “However, some areas rely totally on volunteer input such as the garden.

“The garden would not exist without volunteers and it would not be so blooming beautiful nor as well maintained.

“The gardeners have told us on many occasions that they may have transformed this area but volunteering during the pandemic transformed their lives. They were extremely isolated and without this project lockdown days would have felt like weeks.”

The Atlas ‘Helping and Healing Garden’ has become a safe space for people to meet outdoors, especially for those who don’t have their own garden at home.

The garden was funded with support from the Whitemountain Programme, which provided £50,000 to enable the centre to transform a derelict building into a new Community Hub and garden.

Shannon Downey, Communities Lead, Groundwork Northern Ireland, which manages the Whitemountain Programme, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the work of groups like Atlas Women’s Centre.

“Through the Whitemountain Programme, we support local community groups that provide vital services in their area. We get to see the direct impact this funding has on the life of people in communities across Northern Ireland. This project will provide much needed opportunities for people in the local area to access services to improve their wellbeing. “

Russell Drew, Whitemountain Programme, added: “We are delighted to continue to support projects rooted in the community, addressing local issues and needs through the Whitemountain Programme.

“Funding for the new community hub and Atlas Women’s Centre will greatly increase its current capacity and ensure more people in the local area can access vital support around educational and emotional wellbeing. We look forward to seeing the community hub when it’s finished.”

Someone who has made good use of the community garden commented: “I can’t wait to go back into the centre, but for now the garden is perfect. Such a calming oasis that gets me away from the four walls I have seen for too long now.”

Garden volunteers from Atlas also collected and dismantled pallets and made them into furniture, planters and window boxes to be delivered to the community to decorate, promoting recycling and upcycling.

One of the people who has benefitted from the support of Atlas said: “I really don’t know how to thank you all for what you are doing for me and my girls.

“You deliver food and activities for all of us, you phone me once a week to see how we all are, your volunteer is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life - she listens/gives advice and I bet she’d wipe away my tears down that phone if she could.

“As I have zero family support, it’s amazing to know someone cares/you all care. To come off the phone every week and feel worthy is amazing, I will never forget it.”

Gay cannot speak highly enough of the volunteers and staff at Atlas, who have worked particularly hard during the last year under very difficult circumstances. “This group worked every day, all day during and after lockdown and are still working from home, in the centre and in the garden to help reduce the stress and anxiety of others,” she said. “During an unprecedented time this group stepped up and turned lock down into buckle down and knuckle down to help meet the needs of others in our community.

“We know people attend Atlas because they feel safe, welcomed and valued. It’s more than a community centre, it is a safe haven and a second home for many participants and volunteers.”

Atlas volunteer Ann Johnson putting her sewing skills to good use
Volunteers and supporters enjoying the opening of the community garden
Susan Key, who tutored the volunteers in how to sew scrubs and PPE, and Carol Williams