‘I’ve been in some very dark places over the years, but Men’s Shed has made a huge difference for me’

Coleraine man Dean Kelly (50) cannot imagine how he would have survived the pandemic without Men’s Sheds. He has taken on a leading role in his Laurel Hill group and hopes to spearhead its expansion so others can benefit from the activities and camaraderie on offer.

I live in the next street, I was one of the first through the door and they’ve struggled to keep me away ever since,” Dean says.

Be Safe Be Well has set up five Men’s Sheds in the north coast and north west thanks to a £500,000 grant from The National Lottery Community Fund, including two in Coleraine, Foreglen, Limavady and Portstewart.

They provide a safe and inclusive space for men over 25 and give members a chance to socialise, learn new skills, get support and be more involved in their community leading to reduced isolation, increased confidence, improved health and wellbeing and opportunities to get involved in the management and delivery of the Shed.

Activities are driven by members such as woodwork, music sessions, cookery and community projects.

“I had heard about Men’s Sheds before and I always fancied it, it seemed like an avenue to do things,” says Dean.

“It gets me out of the house and doing something. I suffer from mental health issues, especially during the lockdown. I would suffer quite a lot with anxiety and depression.

“I felt very apprehensive coming that first time; unless I know people I can be quite quiet and shy, but now I’ve got to know most of the guys here and feel very comfortable.

“Some of the Sheds do different activities — for example, Portstewart is very into music and the arts, while Foreglen is into gardening. Here, we have a garden and a workshop and other things, but it’s mostly about being neighbourly.

“With people, especially men, not using pubs to socialise like they used to, the Men’s Shed has become a bright light in the darkness of this pandemic. Companionship is what I get out of it the most.”

Dean has been married to Mary for 22 years and is her full-time carer, so his opportunities to do activities away from home are limited.

Laurel Hill Men’s Shed, however, has allowed Dean, who trained at Portrush Catering College around 30 years ago, to rediscover his love of cooking. Now he not only cooks for other members, but he also encourages them to cook for themselves by putting on demonstrations.

“Each week I get all the ingredients for a big pot of soup and come in early to make it so it’s ready for anyone dropping in to get a bowl at lunchtime,” he explains.

“I had been pushing for a vegetable garden for some time but with the lockdown beginning in March 2020, we didn’t get everything planted.

“However, Catherine who runs the Men’s Sheds, developed her green fingers and grew things at home which we then got into the ground here when we were able to. I came up over the summer to water everything and now we use the produce in the soup. We’ve had plenty of courgettes and the herbs are going well, but we’ve also got sprouts, beetroot, onions and potatoes so we’ll be able to use those for a good hearty Irish stew over the winter. I’m also going to have a go at borscht, an eastern European beetroot soup served with sour cream.

“The reason I started cooking the soup was because I realised a lot of the guys were going home to unhealthy ready meals. My idea was to show them how to make a healthy soup for very little money.

“I did a demonstration with the Portstewart group, showing them how to make soup, stock and flatbread. I also showed the other Coleraine group at Cornfield how to make a simple pea soup using very few ingredients.

“You can get reduced produce in the supermarket and you can cook it or freeze it but it makes a meal that’s so much better than opening a tin and it takes as little time to heat in a microwave.

“Some of the guys in the groups were married for 30 years or more and now they’re on their own for different reasons and they don’t know how to cook. I want to show them how easy it is. I wish more of them would take it up.

“I get great satisfaction from doing it. I never would have seen myself standing up front and centre and I do get anxious the night before a demonstration — I didn’t sleep for two nights before I did it for the first time — but it’s good to be able to share my knowledge. I don’t think my lecturers back at the catering college would have thought I would have been doing this! It gives me a real buzz and it’s all down to the Men’s Shed.

“At the minute Laurel Hill Men’s Shed is only open on a Wednesday but we’re looking to open another day of the week. It’s something to look forward to, the morale boost it gives is brilliant.

“The Men’s Shed is a lifesaver, it keeps you on the straight and narrow. I have been in some very dark places in the last few years but the Men’s Shed has made a massive difference to me.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, more than £30 million a week is raised for good causes like this across the UK. Since 2009, Be Safe Be Well has received over £2m of funding from The National Lottery Community Fund to support the health and wellbeing of people in the Causeway Coast and Glens Council area.

Catherine Taylor is programme director of the five Be Safe Be Well Men’s Sheds and also director of the Irish Men’s Shed Association.

“Dean is a great example of one of our members, he is so competent and kind. We want the men within the Sheds to take full ownership and get fully integrated in their delivery and management,” she says.

“According to the feedback we receive, the whole family feels the benefits when the man feels like he has a value and has something to contribute.

“The Men’s Shed movement originated in Australia around 15 years ago before catching on in Ireland, with around 50 now up and running in Northern Ireland.

“Our funding from The National Lottery Community Fund allows us to have the staff to ensure we can welcome anyone from the age of 25, which is different from the traditional Men’s Sheds, as well as men with various degrees of disabilities and mental health issues.

“It allows us to operate the kind of Men’s Sheds that are really needed in this area, ones that are open to men who are more vulnerable, whose needs are more complex so that we can deliver specialised activities which are inclusive to all.

“We never set out to open five Men’s Sheds, it was entirely based on the needs of the area. It’s a grassroots organisation which has very much grown through what the community was saying to us, particularly in reference to men’s mental health.

“Three of our Sheds are based in areas of high deprivation and that’s deliberate because we realised that’s where there was the highest unemployment.

“We are indebted to the National Lottery Community Fund for giving us the opportunity to offer Men’s Sheds to men of all ages and abilities.

“Thanks to National Lottery players the money is raised, and I like to think that the money is going back to them and directly into their communities that really need it, so thank you!”

Belfast Telegraph