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TV Presenter and furniture restorer Jay Blades honours Scottish community workers with bespoke benches

23rd November 2020

Today two Scottish charity workers have been honoured with unique, handcrafted benches designed by the country’s most famous furniture restorer and eco-designer Jay Blades.

Steven McCluskey from Bikes for Refugees, who has been honoured with a bench

Edinburgh based charity worker and founder of Bikes for Refugees (Scotland), Steven McCluskey, and Aberdeen resident Debra Kirkness, who runs Music 4 U, are among 13 ‘Unsung Champions’ across the UK being recognised for their time and efforts in supporting some of the most vulnerable in communities during the pandemic, with the aid of National Lottery funding.

The pandemic has challenged individuals and communities, with people pulling together with neighbours, local community groups and charities to provide much needed care and support. New insights released today from The National Lottery reveal that almost half of Scottish people (48%) feel that, notwithstanding the hardships of the pandemic, one of the most positives things to emerge is the community spirit and 57% have an increased appreciation for community workers1. This reinvigorated connection with the community, and nearly a third (30%) saying they know their neighbours better than before lockdown meaning that 4 in 5 of those (81%) actually feel safer as a result of this.

Debra Kirkness from Music 4 U and her bench

Jay’s bench designs are inspired by the specific work of the individuals they are dedicated to. Debra Kirkness is the founder of ‘Music 4 U’, a performing arts school in Aberdeen that helps young people with physical and learning disabilities, as well as challenging social and financial circumstances, get involved with music.

During lockdown the charity found innovative ways to reach out to its community. Many of the children who attend are on the autistic spectrum, and had exceptional needs for timetables, structure and stability. Under Debra, the school quickly adapted its creative strategy by running online concerts, interviews and quizzes, making videos, creating doorstep challenges, and remaining in touch virtually with all their students and their families.

Debra's bench dedication

“Trying to stay positive hasn’t been the easiest but we’ve done it. The parents have flooded us with grateful comments. Having that structure taken away, particularly for those on the spectrum, is hard. Music 4 U gave them that. I can’t really believe I have been recognised in this way, I can’t really find the words.”

Debra said:

Meanwhile, Bikes for Refugees (Scotland) founder, Steven McCluskey, recognised quickly at the start of the coronavirus lockdown, the charity needed to broaden its scope, lending bikes to essential workers in health, social care, education and other key roles. They also used National Lottery funding to provide emergency food aid and other essential supplies to isolated and vulnerable New Scots (refugees and asylum seekers).

Steven's bench dedication

“The last four or five months have been particularly challenging, not just for us as a project but for our community in particular. After lockdown many asylum seekers found themselves very isolated and experiencing a wide range of mental health difficulties. Bicycles provide freedom of movement and a free means of travel supporting people to access essential community services and activities as well as protecting and promoting mental health and wellbeing. We also provided bikes to key workers in essential roles who have been trying to keep safe and healthy throughout the pandemic.”

Steven said:

Debra’s bench will be installed outside the Aberdeen Arts centre where Debra does much of her work and Steven’s bench will be installed in Glasgow Green on the Sustrans National Cycle Network (NCN75) linking Glasgow to Edinburgh where the project has its community cycle hubs.

“Like most of us, I have witnessed inspirational acts of selflessness and kindness this year as people have adapted their lives to help others. It has been an honour to hear about the 13 people whose work is being honoured today with a bespoke bench being placed in their local area. Each bench represents the person’s personality, passions and the impact they have had on others in their community. It is hopefully a fitting tribute to their efforts this year – efforts that too often go unheralded but never unappreciated by those they help – that these benches can be places where others can find out more about their work.”

Jay Blades said:

This increased appreciation for people who help others in their community, has led to a greater desire from the public to honour them. So much so, that 25 times as many people in Scotland would rather buy a drink for a local community worker than an A-list celebrity. In addition, 14 times as many Scottish people would rather hear about stories of kindness in their local community than stories about show-biz celebrities.

When it comes to who we value and celebrate in our ever changing world, (80%) of Scottish people believe it is more important to have award ceremonies that celebrate everyday people that helped people in their community, than award ceremonies that celebrate music or movie stars such as the GRAMMYs or Oscars.

“For 25 years The National Lottery has helped make amazing things happen, but never in such extraordinary times. People and communities have found themselves facing myriad challenges and pressures but have still found the passion and drive to support each other in so many different ways. These bespoke community benches are a fitting tribute and show that their incredible work has not gone unnoticed and is in fact recognised, valued and inspiring others more than ever before.”

Dawn Austwick, CEO of The National Lottery Community Fund said:

The National Lottery is running a campaign in dedication to previously unheralded individuals who have responded to the challenges the pandemic has had by helping make other people’s lives a bit more bearable, comfortable and enjoyable, just when they needed it most. People who may not feel that their actions and efforts are anything special but have had a positive and profound impact across the arts, community, heritage and sport sectors around the UK.

The National Lottery contributes around £30 million to good causes in the UK every week. With the help of this funding, thousands of people across the UK are supporting their communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These efforts are making a huge difference to people’s wellbeing, particularly those who are vulnerable and isolated.