In 1980 an increasing number of people who had been hospitalised for treatment for mental health issues were being discharged to live in houses and residential facilities in the Christchurch community. Some people had lived in hospital for many years and had become isolated from community living and were liable to become quite lonely. Also, some were vulnerable to experiencing discrimination by people in the neighbourhood in which they lived. For some, the only people they had contact with were the staff from the mental health services who visited to support their wellness and their taking of medication.
A group of people recognised the need for a place for former patients to go to gain social support and friendship. This group was spearheaded by Barbara Hall and her colleagues, with the support of the Reverend Simon Acland, the vicar of St Luke’s Church. The church hall was used as the first venue in which to meet, and the first volunteers to run the Centre sessions came from the four city centre churches: St Luke’s Anglican, St Mary’s Catholic, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Apostolic Church. At the time, “Aldersgate”, a day programme, was being run at the Methodist church on Fridays which was attended by some people with mental health needs. So, St Luke’s Centre commenced sessions in the afternoon on Mondays to Thursdays, with an additional session on Wednesday mornings. In those early days, staff (nurses and social workers) from the mental health services (Sunnyside Hospital) attended each session to support members and volunteers.
The Governance body was formed by representatives of the churches, a group of health professionals, and with representation from the volunteer Session Co-ordinators.
The range of activities offered to members included board games and card games, indoor bowls and refreshments at each session. The main focus at every session was to provide a place of friendship and care where members could socialise and converse, especially with volunteers who were not a part of the mental health services but who were willing to listen, to play games and to share stories of their life experiences and their careers. An art group enabled members to express themselves in different ways and helped to build confidence in self-expression. Efforts were made to assist members to progress on to other community recreation organisations. For some members this included a chance to play golf each week.
Recognising the benefits of participation in the wider community, regular outings for members were arranged, usually combining members of two sessions going for a picnic at The Groynes or a barbecue at Spencer Park, or a trip to Sumner beach. These trips were in a hired bus. Over the years other outings have included visits to the museum and to other public events e.g. art exhibitions.
Being the first community organisation of its kind in Christchurch, St Luke’s Centre has maintained its voluntary status. Even though the support of the staff of the mental health services has declined, volunteers have continued to give their time and expertise in participating in the sessions over many years, as too have many members. For many, attendance and joining with friends is the highlight of their week.
Over the years, the members, volunteers, Session Co-ordinators and Governance committee have been challenged with unexpected events. These included the Tuesday session in 2011 when the earthquake severely shook the Caledonian Hall. The wall collapsed outwards and three volunteers’ cars were crushed. But all members and volunteers, although shocked and shaken, were assisted through the dust to climb out over the rubble.
Throughout the next few years, St Luke’s Centre was forced to move to five different venues and continued to run sessions each week – which was indicative of the importance of these activities, the friendship of members, and the dedication of the volunteers and the committee to persevere.
The number of volunteer members has declined over the years, and in recent years the Centre has increasingly provided opportunity for students undertaking their mental health support work training to gain supervised workplace experience. During 2017, Comcare Trust provided considerable support to St Luke’s Centre, both in supporting members and in supporting the learning experience of students.
St Luke’s Centre is unique amongst the range of community mental health services that has developed in Christchurch since 1980 in that it is the only service operating on a totally voluntary basis – as a volunteer association. As such, it is also the only organisation of its kind to operate throughout New Zealand.
The consistency and support of community volunteers and the accepting, friendly, social setting of a club enhance the unique features of friendship and enjoyable recreation. These continue to be a weekly highlight in the lives of many members. There is always a warm welcome at St Luke’s Centre, and prospective volunteers are invited to arrange a visit to see if they can offer much needed support.
The welcome support of Comcare Trust since the beginning of 2017 gives an added dimension for members, volunteers and students.