30 Years of Big Life - our story in pictures

1989: The Hulme community takes a stand

At the end of the 1980s, Hulme was considered to be the worst housing estate in Europe, with loads of issues with its buildings. The area also experienced a high level of social issues such as mental health, family breakdown, drugs and crime.

But that’s not the whole story. Hulme also had a really strong, vibrant and active community determined to do things for themselves; they weren’t prepared to stand back and accept what was given to them.

The Zion Community Centre was opened by local community activists in 1991 and took on the Kath Locke Centre in 1996, becoming the first non statutory organisation to run a primary care centre in the country.  They continued to play an active part in the regeneration of Hulme and Moss Side and grew into a vibrant social enterprise – The Big Life Group.  This is the story of people involved in those first years…

You can see more about the subsequent regeneration of Hulme in this 1993 documentary: https://youtu.be/UmK_JEccCsg

Take a trip down memory lane with our 30 years of Big Life timeline at: www.thebiglifegroup.com/30years

1991: Let's put the Zion to use!

People in Hulme were determined that the Zion building, at the time only used by Probation and the Halle Orchestra for practice, should be put to use to support the whole community.

As a result, Manchester City Council gave us a free year on the building’s lease and a £17k grant to set up the Zion Community Health and Resource Centre.

Denise Williams

1991: The launch of our needle exchange

One of the first services at the Zion was a needle exchange – initially led by volunteers. It was only the second exchange in the city at the time and was run by DASH (Drug and Addiction Support in Hulme).

It came about in response to the HIV crisis and the lack of support for people living with addiction.

Picture caption: Denise Williams

1991: Our first members of staff

The £17k grant given to us by the council paid for our first three staff, Fay Selvan (pictured), Sandra Stapleton and Vee Williams. They were our coordinator, receptionist and cleaner, and even though they’ve come a long way, they’re all still at Big Life!

Picture caption: Fay Selvan

1992: How can I help you?

As we became busier and busier, the voluntary services running in the Zion soon became joined by statutory teams, as they recognised that we were meeting people across the Hulme community that they simply weren’t able to reach.

Picture caption: Angie Weir (on the phone)

1992: Our first Annual Report

Initially, as an unincorporated society, the Zion Community Health and Resource Centre was managed through a committee of representatives of each service in the building.

From the very beginning of our journey, each year we produced an annual report of our activities. We continue to produce reports showing our work, the impact we’ve made on our local communities, and much more to this day.

You can find all our reports – including this very first annual report pictured here – in our document library.

1993: A new playscheme and a lick of paint!

When some parents came into the centre saying their kids had nothing to do, and the building site made it dangerous to play on the streets, we gave them the space and the support they needed to run a playscheme.

And so Aisha childcare was born. The first fun activity for the children, help us redecorate!

Picture caption: Chisha

1993: Work and play in one place

With Aisha up and running, we secured funding to build an outdoor play area to offer full day-care, as well as NVQ training in Childcare and Education to our volunteers, so that they could move into work.

1994: Building our local connections

Despite being situated in the middle of a building site, more and more people started coming to the Zion, dodging tractors and diggers on the way. When Stretford Road was finally opened, we built our new building on the empty land you can see here.

1994: Big Issue North West launches

After two years of selling Big Issue in London, Anne MacNamara and Ruth Turner published the first ever Big Issue North West in Manchester.

Although it was an independent publication, it maintained the Big Issue ethos, selling a magazine to people with no other way of earning an income, and supporting them to sell it on the streets at a profit.

Eight years later, Big Issue North became part of the newly formed Big Life group and has been a key part of our work ever since.

Since then, more than 300 vendors across the north of England every year sell Big Issue North to earn an income and achieve their aspirations.

Fola Agboyela, Karen Wilson, Fay, Di Chisolm (Mcr Dir of PH), Ian Mello and x

1994: We get active for Healthy Hulme

Hulme’s regeneration brought together a range of partners, including the council and health authority, and we actively campaigned to improve health in Hulme.

This picture was taken at a festival where we were paid by the health authority to produce a guide to Healthy Hulme and distribute it to the local community – this was one of the first health service contracts we delivered.

Picture caption: (back row, l-r) Gilroy Ferguson and Ian Mello, (front row, l-r) Fola Agbalaya, Karen Wilson, Fay Selvan and Di Chisholm

1995: Time for a brew

Having a cuppa with people who used the centre was always part of making people feel welcome. After securing funding for a full kitchen, the Zion cafe opened in partnership with HARP – the mental health service which later became Manchester Mind.

HARP ran the café until the pandemic in 2020, offering cheap nutritious meals and work placements for people with mental health needs.

1995: Our first self-help groups

Frustrated by the lack of services for people experiencing anxiety, Nicky Lidbetter and Pete Nunes started volunteering at the centre – providing our first self-help drop-in groups. Led by peer facilitators, the groups quickly expanded, providing support for people with depression, social isolation and self-harm.

We received funding from the NHS to provide supervision and support to Peer Facilitators to ensure the groups were safe and high quality. This first contract was the beginning of our mental health services today.

1995: Embracing new technology

IT skills were becoming a requirement for people seeking work, and we secured funding to give people access to computers and training in how to use them, as well as basic Maths and English. This led to us managing trainee work placements in voluntary organisations, and our first employability contracts.

1995: Our first trainees graduate

We partnered with City College and trained one of our volunteers, Cath Hunter (front row, far left), as an NVQ assessor, and started qualifying our parents in Childcare and Education. At the same time, we recruited our first nursery manager Dorcas Bridge (front row, second from the right).

Picture caption: (back row, l-r) Mina, Amanda, Sandra and Shirley (front row l-r) Cath, Rhian, Viveen, Dorcas and Andrea

1996: Body and mind working in harmony

We have always been about the whole person – recognising that body and mind are interconnected, and trauma can often be held in the body. Because of this we offered free or cheap access to a range of holistic therapies including massage and counselling.

Our centres today continue to offer a range of treatments including Qigong, yoga and acupuncture. You can see everything we have to offer across our three centres, at the Zion Centre, the Kath Locke Centre and the Energise Centre.

Picture caption: Sue Pollitt massaging Lucy Scher

1997: The Kath Locke Centre opens its doors

We secured our first major NHS contract, becoming the first primary care centre in the country run by an independent contractor. Based in the heart of Moss Side, we named it after local activist Kath Locke.

Ian Mello was working for the Health Authority at the time, while Bolagi Lawrence is one of Kath Locke’s sons. In order to take on our first big contract, we incorporated and became a charity.

10 years later, we looked back at what the Kath Locke Centre had achieved, in our 10 year evaluation.

Picture caption: (l-r) Ian Mello, Fay Selvan, Bolagi Lawrence

1997: By the community, for the community

At Kath Locke, we worked with community, voluntary and statutory organisations to innovate new services to meet community needs. Here, Propria Persona offered a culturally appropriate weekly drop in for people of colour with learning difficulties.

1999: Maternity services how you need them

Another new service at Kath Locke offered was a maternity pilot in partnership with Manchester Foundation Trust, offering continuity of midwife care to women who were pregnant and had either mental health issues or spoke English as a second language. They had the same midwife throughout and access to wraparound support.

The service contributed to the successful funding bid to the Health Action Zone for a Consultant Midwife, who later established the award-winning Manchester Specialist Midwifery service in the Zion.

1999: Life is sweet at Sugar Group

To this day, we believe that services work best when people are supported to do it for themselves. After the local Diabetic Nursing Team told us they had difficulty accessing the African Caribbean community, we brought some elders together that the Sugar Group was born.

The Sugar Group organise themselves (with a little bit of support from our team) to help older people with diabetes stay active, and they’re still going strong all these years later. You can find out how to join here.

In 2009, we released an evaluation, showing the ways that the Sugar Group had made their local community a little sweeter to be in for people with diabetes.

Picture caption: (l-r) Monica, Henrietta and Beryl

2000: A sure start in Longsight

With a growing reputation as an organisation that helped communities to do things themselves to change and improve where they live, the people of Longsight chose us to deliver their SureStart centre when the programme launched in 2000.

Aneela was one of our first staff to work in the centre. The site of the SureStart centre now houses our combined children’s centre, nursery and school in Longsight.

10 years on, we reflected on what we’d achieved at the children’s centre.

Picture caption: Aneela Hussain

2001: The New Zion opens its doors

Despite the Millennium Commission rejecting our funding application and telling us we have ‘little chance of succeeding’, we managed to secure funding for our new building for the Zion, which is still in use to this day.

The new building was a key part of the regeneration of Stretford Road and the surrounding area. Tony Lloyd (Central Manchester MP at the time) officially opened the building, with Peter Dungey and Mary Murphy, local councillors, also in attendance.

2002: The Big Life group is officially created

In 2002 Anne MacNamara sold us Big Issue North for £1, and The Big Life group was officially formed!

As one of the first social enterprise groups in the country, we broke the mold with our structure – with a social enterprise as the holding company with charities as subsidiaries.

At this point we started working outside of Manchester for the first time, and also adopted our first strapline – in the business of changing lives.

Since then, our mission has developed as we have, but still with the same ethos at heart – you can read all about our current mission statement, vision and values in our latest business plan.

Picture caption: (l-r) Fay Selvan and Anne MacNamara

2002: The Homeless World Cup kicks off

From 2002 until 2014, we managed the England Homeless World Cup team, giving people experiencing homelessness the chance to try out for the team and participate in the international competition.

Each year a 100 young men from hostels and temporary accommodation across England would take part in trials with our partners Manchester United. Twelve would form a squad to take part in the international competition, travelling around the world.

The Homeless World Cup is still running today.

2003: Summergrove brings families together

We worked with parents struggling with addiction, who had lost their children to the care system, to co-design Summergrove, a supported housing facility to help parents have their children return to live with them from social care. In total 38 children were reunited with their parents through Summergrove. You can read more about it in our service evaluation.

2004: Days of fun for Old Trafford families

In 2004, we were asked to support the local community in Old Trafford and take over the family centre. We secured funding to deliver a wide range of family support services and a children’s day-care. Here, the community come together for a fun day.

2004: Liverpool gain a Community Voice

Determined to give people more control in their future, we launched Community Voice, a user-led service that gives people in Liverpool the opportunity to have a real say in the drug and alcohol support available in the city. This experience has led us to be able to participate in other projects and services, including the Big Lottery funded programmes Waves of Hope in Liverpool and the Inspiring Change services in Manchester.

Community Voice is still going strong today.

2006: Leading the way with eTherapy

After working with Ultrasis UK, a private sector software developer, to pilot Beating the Blues, we became the first in the country to offer a supported eTherapy programme, with Peer Supporters in community venues. eTherapy is now a mainstream offer in mental health services today.

2006: Three more healthy living centres

After funding for healthy living centres was withdrawn, many centres struggled to find a purpose and we were asked to take them on. We managed Partington Healthy Living Centre in Trafford, Stockport Healthy Living centre, and the Cheetwood Centre in North Manchester. We also supported the Victoria Baths Trustees, helping them develop a viable future.

2007: Young men given Skills2Build

We were sponsored by Ainscough Cranes to develop a work programme for young men who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system. This developed into Skills2Build in 2007, based in Partington, Trafford, taking on contracts for housing associations for garden maintenance and clearance.

When Skill2Build came to an end in 2014, we produced an evaluation on what we had achieved.

2007: Salford go the Big Life way

We won the contract to run the Energise and Willow Tree centres, built as part of the New Deal for Communities regeneration of Lower Kersal and Charlestown – two areas of Salford with high health needs and no primary care services, As well as housing a GP practice at the Willow Tree, courses quickly developed in both centres, ranging from IT for beginners and ESOL courses to asylum support and money management.

You can read about the first three years of both centres, and we still manage the Energise Centre today, as part of a wider network of Salford Healthy Living Centres.

2007: Grimsby gains an Open Door

We took an active part in national campaigns to grow the social enterprise sector in the delivery of public services, acting as mentors to services. We helped develop Open Door in Grimsby – a GP practice with a difference, providing social care alongside primary care through a single multi-disciplinary team.

The practice won national awards and is now managed by a local social enterprise – Care Trust Plus. The Open Door building that we developed is still a landmark building in Grimsby today.

In 2009, we looked back at two years of Open Door.

2008: Mental health support keeps growing

With Self Help a well-established name, recognised for innovation and flexibility, we were commissioned to deliver the first IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) funded psychological therapy service in Manchester.

From this starting point, over the next decade our NHS-commissioned talking therapies services have extended to Stockport, Tameside, Rochdale, Eastern Cheshire, Halton and St Helens, providing support to countless people with mental health issues.

We continue to be in the forefront of innovation, currently leading on the Living Life to the Full pilot in Tameside, reducing barriers to people accessing services.

2009: All aboard the Big Boat

Working with some creative commissioners in Stockport we commissioned and built a floating Healthy Living Centre – the Big Boat! Run by volunteers, it offered day trips and activities for people and community groups in Stockport. Sadly, the cost of running it was seen as too high when the local authority had to make reductions, and it was sold.

2009: Project with new Roma communities

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2008, people had the right to travel and live in the UK for the first time. However, they could only access work in limited roles. At Big Issue North, people from these countries approached us about selling the magazine. They were mainly from Roma ethnic backgrounds, and were fleeing persecution and discrimination that meant the average lifespan of a Roma man was only 50 years. At the same time, there was some community tensions building in areas such as Longsight where the Roma community was establishing itself. We funded a project to engage Roma community connects and train them to act as guides and advisers.

2011: Brian inspires the Harvey Project

Brian Harvey was a Big Issue North vendor who sold the magazine for many years, while sleeping under bridges in the Castlefield area of Manchester. He credited the area’s regeneration with inadvertently leading to his recovery from addiction.

After a period of detox, he became a volunteer for us and later became a trustee. After his death, we named our first Housing First service, the Harvey Project in Liverpool, after him, which supported people at risk of social exclusion due to addiction.

The Harvey Project ran until 2o16, at which point, we looked back at the impact it had made.

Picture caption: Brian Harvey

2011: Children's support moves north east

Our successful delivery of children’s centres, family support and nurseries in Manchester helped us secure three new children centres in Stockton-on-Tees. We went on to develop a volunteer service and two new nurseries offering much needed childcare, running services in the town until 2018.

2012: Big Life keeps on Working Well

With a strong reputation for training, we gained a major contract, to pilot a new employment service which also looked after peoples wellbeing. The Working Well Pilot, delivered work placements in the voluntary sector and basic skills training in Salford, Manchester and Trafford. At the same time, it delivered a holistic wellbeing assessment and support.

It attracted a lot of attention, including visits from Kate Green MP and Chris White MP, pictured here, and led to the developing of the Work and Health Programme.

2012: Salford shows we're better together

When Being Well Salford launched, it typified our approach – it was based in community venues, it helped people improve their health by working on all areas of their lives, and it showed that we achieve more in partnership than we do alone.

Big Life led seven third sector providers to deliver the service. We continued to develop this approach in all of our public health services – Be Well in Manchester and Living Well in Rochdale. It also helped us develop our innovative Multi Modality Practitioner training, which we developed with Salford University in 2019.

Take a look at what Being Well Salford did in our year one service evaluation.

2013: Our first school opens its doors

When parents in Longsight said the area desperately needed more school places, we solved the problem the Big Life way – by working with them to create one! Now, Longsight Community Primary is a well-established school and a key part of the community, who still have plenty of input into how it’s run!

The School is built onto the Longsight Nursery and Childrens Centre and offers a unique integrated 0-11 family support service.

2014: Rochdale gets help to live well

Living Well Rochdale gives people in the borough the chance to change their lives how they want and where they want. It gained a reputation for volunteering – including popular volunteer-led walks. To date, hundreds of volunteers has given their time to Living Well – and continue to do so! Living Well was able to step up and help out the Kirkholt Community, helping them manage their lottery funded project, and also works closely with our Talking Therapies service in Rochdale.

2014: Much-needed sanctuary arrives

When The Sanctuary launched, it provided through-the-night support and a place of safety for people experiencing anxiety, panic attacks, depression or suicidal thoughts. In the coming years, new Sanctuaries would open in Wigan and Bolton, with phone support across Greater Manchester.

Crisis support is now delivered as part of mainstream NHS services, but you can read about what the Sanctuary achieved here.

2014: New pathways for recovery

Pathways, our drug and alcohol recovery service in Rochdale, coached people to explore barriers stopping them from recovery and develop techniques to take control.

The success of Pathways helped us win a contract to deliver Achieve, a partnership approach to recovery services in Bolton, Bury, Salford and Trafford.

2015: Unity leads to Big Life Schools

When our second school, Unity Community Primary, opened in Cheetwood, it preserved a great community space (building onto the Cheetwood Centre) as well as education for the area’s diverse families. It also marked the creation of our Multi Academy Trust, Big Life Schools, which oversees our schools, ensuring a shared vision and ethos.

2016: DONUTS fill any holes in peer support

With our peer support services still going strong, we launched DONUTS (the Design of New Unique Therapeutic Services) to make sure that service users, volunteers and external partners were involved in the design, development, delivery and evaluation of our services. And yes, our meetings had donuts!

In this picture is David Jarvis (left), one of the key people involved in giving people accessing our mental health services a voice, who sadly passed away in 2020.

2016: Stars show support with Big Sell

Big Issue North has gained support from the great and the good over the years, with many taking part in our annual ‘Big Sells’, spending an hour selling the magazine alongside a vendor. Here, Maxine Peake sold the magazine outside the Royal Exchange – where she was also starring on stage at the time!

2017: Frank makes some noise for Big Issue North

With the International Network of Street Papers conference in Manchester, we organised a fundraising concert for Big Issue North and the wider network. Folk-rock star Frank Turner performed to more than 1,500 people, helping us raise more than £40,000 to support vendors locally and around the world!

2018: Our pupils make the next step

Five years after it first opened its doors, Longsight Community Primary waved goodbye to its first group of leavers. Many had been with us from a very young age (or even before they were born!) to access children’s centre services and our nursery, and we can’t wait to see what they grow up to achieve!

2019: National recognition for Big Life

Ever since we began, we’ve been blessed with countless dedicated members of staff who are proud to work for us. So in late 2019, we were delighted to be listed at number 28 in the Sunday Times’ best not-for-profit organisations to work for.

Our staff are the heart and soul of the group, and their dedication to working with people and places to create opportunities and inspire change is remarkable.

2020: Pandemic leads to big changes

With the seismic changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, our services had to find new ways to support people. We delivered home-schooling, online counselling and door-to-door recovery support, while Big Issue North raised money for a hardship fund for vendors, and provided them with the necessary PPE and card machines to sell safely.

2021: Still smiling after all these years

As we celebrated our 30th birthday, our staff came together for our annual staff awards, more determined than ever to make a difference for the next three decades. And no-one was smiling more than Fay Selvan, Sandra Stapleton and Vee Williams – the trio who had been with us every step of the way.