Hallglen community rallies to fight poverty and isolation

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Residents of a Falkirk housing estate are working to try and combat severe health and social care issues they say are worse than ever in the wake of the pandemic.

The committee behind Hallglen’s only community hall say they feel their community has become increasingly cut off – with a poor bus service making it difficult to get to work or health appointments.

For anyone who has a car, Hallglen is only a few minutes drive from Falkirk town centre – but for those who don’t, it can be almost impossible to get public transport. The service that once had four buses an hour is now supposed to be half-hourly – in fact, you’re lucky if they turn up at all, say the residents.

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If you’re fit enough to cope with the hill, you could walk into Falkirk – if you didn’t mind adding nearly an hour to your journey. But for the elderly and disabled – or people carrying shopping – that isn’t an option.

Sylvia Kay with Councillor Lorna BinnieSylvia Kay with Councillor Lorna Binnie
Sylvia Kay with Councillor Lorna Binnie

But it isn’t an option just to stay in Hallglen either – there is no doctor’s surgery, no dentist and no supermarket.

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There is no sports centre either – it was closed by Falkirk Council in 2019 after its heating broke down and it was too expensive to repair. So far efforts to restore the building have come to nothing.

Close to the top of the hill is a small row of shops that includes a convenience store that is a lifeline for many.

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Back row: Michelle Jamieson, Councillor Lorna Binnie, Linda McKelvie (Treasurer) 
Front row: Sylvia Kay (chairperson) Helen BeurskensBack row: Michelle Jamieson, Councillor Lorna Binnie, Linda McKelvie (Treasurer) 
Front row: Sylvia Kay (chairperson) Helen Beurskens
Back row: Michelle Jamieson, Councillor Lorna Binnie, Linda McKelvie (Treasurer) Front row: Sylvia Kay (chairperson) Helen Beurskens

And almost at the foot of the hill, there is the Ettrick Dochart Community Hall. Here, thanks to a dedicated committee, the hall is being done up and is being increasingly used by people of all ages as a place to meet and find support.

The hall is now home to several groups that aim to bring people together. It is also the base for a food pantry, helping dozens of residents every week who are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes amid the cost of living crisis.

One of the newest groups is a Knit n Knatter group, which was set up just three weeks ago and this week had 18 people coming along.

“If you go down there now, you’d never believe it was only the third week!” says Sylvia Kay, the hall’s chairperson. “Listen to them! They’re all chatting away in there and they didn’t know each other three weeks ago!”

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There’s also a weekly cafe – known as Positivi-tea – and a Men’s Shed/Club, both of which bring people together.

There is also the baby and toddlers’ group, which attracts 25 wee ones and more than 50 adults, as grannies and other family members are also welcome. Helen Beurskens, who volunteers with the group, says she loves watching the wee ones grow up over the months and even years.

The space they are most proud of is Scott’s Room, which is used to offer counselling through The Scott Martin Foundation, a mental health charity set up in memory of a 16-year-old who tragically took his own life.

Scott’s Room now offers counselling to 22 young people in Hallglen every week – and Sylvia knows from personal experience that it has saved lives.

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The ladies who work so hard to keep the hall running believe the popularity of their events shows how strong the need for them is.

The hall improvements started in May 2020 when Sylvia was spending a lot of time in the hall running a very small food bank and noticed there was lots needing done.

She started it in 2019, after having had to use one herself when she was going through treatment for cancer. When the pandemic struck, it opened four days a week for wider community use and despite receiving treatment for cancer, Sylvia was determined to keep it going.

She and the other volunteers now run it as a food pantry, which is used by 106 members. Around 60 of them use it every week, choosing a bag of shopping for £2 to help make ends meet.

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Coronavirus funding stopped in April so Sylvia is waiting to see what happens next although she’s in no doubt it will still be needed as the energy prices are hitting the poorest families hardest.

She talks about one single mum who saved to buy a second-hand PlayStation for her young son’s Christmas.

“She’s had to take it off him now because she can’t afford the electricity – that’s how bad it is.”

There are big problems in Hallglen that the committee knows it can’t tackle: high unemployment, drug use, domestic violence levels that are far higher than the national average.

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“I had a man come in who is an alcoholic and he had been drinking all weekend and knew he needed to get to a drop-in centre,” said Sylvia. “So, he waited for a bus and the bus didn’t show – so what did he do? He went and spent his money on drink, got drunk and slashed himself.

“And I’m left to deal with it. I’m not a support worker, I’m not a counsellor.”

Sylvia is now trying to arrange for a recovery group to come into the hall.

“There’s no point having it in town – we need services here,” she says.

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But it’s not just addicts who are affected. People with a doctor’s or hospital appointment simply can’t rely on the bus turning up.

“The buses are atrocious,” said Linda McKelvie, the group’s treasurer who works in Stenhousemuir.

“I change buses on Graham’s Road when I come home and the number of times I’ve had to wait for an hour is ridiculous!”

Helen, who lives in Glen Village, agrees: “If you’ve got a doctor’s appointment, you’ve got to leave an hour before and I’m not able to stand about. I have to depend on people to take me where I want to go, so it is isolating.”

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Councillor Lorna Binnie has asked for answers as to why the bus service is now so bad.

She thinks its time Hallglen got a little bit more attention and has been talking to residents about other improvements they would like to see.

“New signage would make such a difference,” said Cllr Binnie. “There are so many delivery drivers now – but it could also be an ambulance that couldn’t find where they were going.”

To bring about change, the committee are more than willing to play their part. But they would like some more volunteers to come forward to help – in particular, some stronger, fitter volunteers more able to lift tables and chairs and help out with practical tasks.

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Falkirk Council’s Community Choices fund recently gave funding to get ceilings and flooring re-done and to buy new tables and chairs.

“That’ll be it finished then – well for now, anyway,” said Sylvia. “It’s been a lot of tears and tantrums to get here!”

The hall is a vital part of the community now and the committee are currently working towards an asset transfer which will see them take over the building from the council.

“People either can’t get buses or can’t afford buses, so things like job training needs to be here, addiction support needs to be, health services should be here,” said Sylvia.

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“We need to meet the needs of all the different groups – we have to target the whole community.

“There’s a lot that needs done – but it’s not impossible. With the right resources and shouting enough it can be done.”

FirstBus has been approached for a comment.