Jen and Toni-Ann & AHEAD

Building better communities, a group at a time. Jen and Toni Ann tell us that listening, encouragement and optimism can increase social connections and make our communities more welcoming places to live.

Have you ever thought about starting a group or a club but didn’t know how to take the first step? That’s where Jen and Toni-Ann come in! Jen and Toni-Ann are Community Builders: they focus on bringing people together, asking what it is they want to do, helping to make stronger connections and then supporting people to do the things that matter to them.

Providing the Opportunity

Both Jen and Toni-Ann are part of the AHEAD project that works within communities in Ayr North to create better connections and provide the support the community wants, in order to make things that they are passionate about happen. Jen has been working with the community in Craigie, while Toni-Ann has been supporting people living in Dalmilling. “We don’t approach people saying, ‘We’re Community Builders!’ We approach them by making relationships naturally, building trust, meeting people, listening to them and expanding connections through them. Everyone has skills, interests and ideas. Sometimes they just need a bit of encouragement.”

At first they were worried that people wouldn’t want to get involved. Jen said “I was surprised when I started taking to people. They were stepping up, saying what they want to do and what they’re passionate about and what we can do to make that happen.” Sometimes people just need to get that opportunity to set things in motion. Putting in the effort to ask what people want from their community can make a big difference, “Just ask, because you’ll often find that they’ve just been waiting to be asked that question.”

We don’t approach people saying, ‘We’re Community Builders!’ We approach them by making relationships naturally, building trust, meeting people, listening to them and expanding connections through them. Everyone has skills, interests and ideas. Sometimes they just need a bit of encouragement.

Helping People to Connect

In order for people in the community to be able to connect, there needs to be enough opportunities that are right for them. Joining a group can be intimidating - it can be scary trying to meet people when you don’t know anybody. Jen and Toni-Ann hope that building the community networks can help to overcome this fear. “The more people that we encourage to connect, to form groups and to bring others along, the more likely are we to reach people who are isolated and don’t know that many people.”

Often, people are willing and excited to start groups and meet-ups focused on what they are interested in, whether it’s a craft group, book club or a family fun day. “If the community wants to do something, we can usually make it happen.” Having the reassurance that there is someone who supports them can help to build resilience, because putting yourself out there is hard.

Jen and Toni-Ann are there, reassuring people that they can do it, connecting them with others who have the same interest or who can help them with what they need. They can also shoulder the responsibility for starting a group and take the disappointment if it doesn’t work out! It makes a huge difference for people to know that there is someone who is backing them and believes that they can do it. Jen summarised it simply: “If it’s important to the community, it’s important to us.”

The more people that we encourage to connect, to form groups and to bring others along, the more likely are we to reach people who are isolated and don’t know that many people.

Working Together

Part of having strong social connections in the community is being able to work together. So how is it possible for a craft group, a book club and a ‘green spaces’ group to collaborate together? “The smaller groups need to find common goals. The overall thing that they’re interested in is the community and making it a better place to live for everyone.”

Toni-Ann and Jen have shown that our communities are places where ideas can flourish and they have inspired others to make positive change. Sometimes all it takes is asking people what they care about and encouraging them to give it a go. Starting something new can feel difficult and scary – but Jen and Toni-Ann are there with knowledge, encouragement and a sprinkling of optimism to help you make good things happen.