Entering the Growing Space boutique in Blackwood’s High Street, you are immediately greeted by smiling faces.
With shelves filled to the brim with local crafts and other quaint knick-knacks, the store has a remarkably warm and neighborly feel.
This is a social enterprise store made up of a tight-knit group of staff who may have a learning disability or mental health needs or who are referred through the UK government program, Kickstart , which aims to put young people back into the labor market.
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Nicole Bird from Caerphilly works at the store as a retail assistant. The 25-year-old, who needs extra learning support, proudly described her colleagues as “the dream team” that makes her excited to go to work every day.
She said, “I help by serving customers and keeping the place tidy. I have learned to sew since being here and help with banking. I got involved because it’s nice to have a paid job. the people are so friendly. I like to work with other girls to do crafts as a team. I painted a Christmas tree [for the display] and painted the windows upstairs. “
Having opened in July, Growing Space is a branch of the mental health charity of the same name based in Gwent. The charity was founded in 1992 to help people with mental health issues, autism or learning disabilities build self-confidence, develop social skills and improve their quality of life.
Staff are often referred to the store through the employment office to begin a trial run for a few hours per week to get used to working in the store before becoming a volunteer. A number of volunteers, like Nicole, then went on to become paid employers at the Blackwood store or at the charity’s facilities at Tredegar House.
Jane Williams, 53, is a support worker who oversees the day-to-day running of the Blackwood store by supporting staff. She said working at the store is her most rewarding job to date.
She said: “The main purpose of this store is to support people with additional learning needs such as autism and mental health to give them the opportunity to work, to volunteer, to acquire skills. qualifications.
“The whole project is what we put together as a team. When we first walked into this property it was like a box of magnolia. Everything you see here now has been made by Growing Space – whether it’s working as a team to research suppliers, choosing colors for the walls, we work as a team.
“We have a full-time volunteer, Lewis, who was referred to us on lockdown because he suffered from his mental health and kept getting stronger. He started coming here one day a week, as a volunteer, and now he’s a full-time volunteer here, but as of next week he’s actually starting paid work in our Tredegar House store.
“It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had to be honest – it’s so rewarding. Lewis is a prime example – when he was referred to us on lockdown we couldn’t meet in person, so we were cooking Zoom and he did it ‘I don’t commit that much, but now it’s like he’s the boss of the place. He went from volunteering to being paid. C ‘is a highly valued member of the team, as is Nicole. ”
Lewis Davies, 28, of Cwmbran said he had “completely” lost faith in the lockdown after losing his job as a carpenter where he had worked for nine years. Like Nicole, Lewis also has additional learning needs and is taken care of at the store.
“When I came here for the first time, I immediately appreciated it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when I was told I was going to be here full time. “
Lewis said he helped set up the store’s payment system on a tablet. When new staff join, it also teaches them how to use it. he also had the chance to learn carpentry in the upstairs workshop. Jane said he had become the store’s “right hand man”.
Jane said the money made by Growing Space stores goes directly to the charity so they can continue to support new people who are starting out as well as those already present. She said they also help local artisans by selling their pieces and getting a percentage.
She said: “All the money we make is reinvested in Growing Space. It is used to support the people of Gwent, Vale and Cardiff. We also support local artisans.
“During the lockdown they couldn’t go out and get to craft fairs because they had nothing, so we are supporting three local artisans – three ladies from Blackwood who display their products here and we get a percentage of everything. that they sell.
“It really works hand in hand. One of the artisans is also volunteering here – she will do small craft sessions and make things [with staff]. “
Jane said that before the store opened, the team had scoured stores in the area to research the type of products to sell. They didn’t want to be in close competition with the big names on the street and wanted to offer the community something unique.
She said: “Some are products that we ordered. We wanted to sell unique things that you won’t find anywhere else on Main Street. The team did their research to see what other stores were selling like us. didn’t want to compete with them because we wouldn’t be able to sell it. We also tried to have Welsh and Welsh themed products. Here we have soaps made in Merthyr Tydfil and our candles and melted waxes are from Tenby. We also have products made in the NHS by patients. “
While one of the store’s goals is to support the charity by fundraising, staff said some people often like to come and chat just because they know they’ll receive a warm welcome.
Erin Clapp, 24, started working in the store in early November as part of the UK government’s Kickstart program after losing her locked-out job. She said one of her favorite parts of working in the store was connecting with customers as well as staff.
She said: “People come in and we talk about what we’re doing. It’s a very comfortable space and people talk personally about family members or themselves who have mental health issues – especially during the lockdown People say it’s nice to be back on the high street again so that you can socialize, not even just to spend money.
“I had lost my previous job in confinement – with restricted movements, it has become a nightmare. So having a place like this, which is local and feels good, feels good to wake up in the morning. It’s a warming environment. “
The boutique is open Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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