Outdoors and active at the YMCA

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Late last year we ran a series of writing and creative workshops for YMCA North Staffordshire at their Hanley base. Two hours on a Thursday evening became our YMCA slot, with an ever-changing cast of young people dropping by the art room to see what we were about. Across the six sessions we sometimes only had one or two participants, sometimes half a dozen, and for our last session a riot of creativity from about a dozen.

Although billed as a creative writing workshop we kept things as informal as possible, just encouraging and supporting people to write or draw about what they loved about being active and outdoors. This wasn’t always easy - some of our participants had been homeless at some point, before starting to find their feet again at the YMCA, so being ‘outdoors’ wasn’t necessarily a time of happy memories. Ditto when we asked people to think about positive times in their lives - some of the life stories were unrelentingly bleak and challenging, and often individuals simply didn’t want to talk, or write, or draw about anything in their lives. An easier route sometimes was to create a story. In one session, we threw the names of various sports and activities at one participant and she wrote instant mini-stories about some disaster or another befalling the athlete: an entirely unplanned but hugely entertaining ‘flash fiction’ session which we’ll be introducing to future workshops. Cycling, climbing, hurdling and (especially) the javelin all provided rich pickings for ghastly accidents.

Sadly, the author took her writings away with her at the end of the session so we can’t bring them (and the accompanying gory illustrations) to a wider audience. Possibly just as well…

Something else we hadn’t planned for, but which rapidly became a central feature of the workshops, was a forthcoming YMCA trip to Ben Nevis. Most of our regular attendees were booked on the trip, either as YMCA customers or as staff/volunteers. My initial reaction to them saying they were about to bag the Ben was quiet disbelief, reinforced by them talking about their training regime of a few visits to the gym. But it did give me some ideas for catalysing writing and drawing around the looming adventure. I had a couple of rolls of plain white paper, so we laid out enough across a table for four of us to do individual drawings of outdoor activity. My section was of people out and about in the Staffordshire moorlands; Latoya’s was a much more accomplished drawing of the streets and parks around the YMCA, mapping her walking route to work; John tackled the mountain itself, complete with spectacular accidents befalling the walkers; and Melissa helpfully added the Royal Stoke hospital, ambulances and bed-ridden accident victims. It hadn’t been planned that way, but the four drawings became a storyboard for what I hoped was a very fictional depiction of the upcoming hike.

Luckily the week of the hike came and went without any mishaps, and the whole team successfully summited Ben Nevis in glorious sunshine and snow - a fantastic achievement and a great example of the many and varied opportunities that the YMCA puts on for its customers. Post-walk, we collected more writing and drawing of the event itself.

The Ben Nevis trip - artwork by Jaffa

The Ben Nevis trip - artwork by Jaffa

Amongst other pieces of talented writing, drawing and art, one particular find was Darren and his illustrations. He knocked out some great cartoons of a mountain climb in the form of a mini children’s book, and then illustrated a little story I penned for him, me inspired by his writing.

All too quickly, the final session came round and our workshops came to an end. We met some talented artists and writers, many of whom had come through the most challenging of circumstances and who were with the YMCA’s help getting their feet back on the ground.

Everyone has a story to tell of outdoor adventure or being active, it just takes time to unlock the writing or drawing and release the creativity. There there’s no doubt about it, the cast of characters at YMCANS are an inspiring and creative crew!

From the foyer at YMCA North Staffordshire - the tiles say it all

From the foyer at YMCA North Staffordshire - the tiles say it all