‘Hit by a boulder’ the man who shaped Seaview

Last month we wrote about the Seaview Project based in the heart of St Leonards that’s been helping people with ‘complex issues’ for more than 30 years. We touched briefly on how the charity was set up and more importantly why, but this month we look in a little more depth about those early days and how the foundations of the charity were laid.

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Although he died in 2012 Seaview’s first chief executive, John Evans, wrote extensively about the charity’s early days and summed them up like this: “Some people imagine that a centre like Seaview is a place full of people borne down by their problems and living a miserable existence. While it’s true that the vast majority of people attending the centre had major issues in their lives I can say from later experience that I have rarely laughed, or enjoyed myself as much, as I did with so many of those clients.”

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‘What have I let myself in for?’ That’s what John Evans, the first manager of Seaview, asked himself on his first day at work with the project.

Mr Evans wrote a blog and talked extensively about his days at Seaview. While the blog is no longer available online large chunks of it still exist in either printed form or as screenshots online.

Recognised as having had a profound affect on the way that Seaview grew and developed over the years Mr Evans explained in his blog how he thought he’d fallen at the very first hurdle in his interview for the position of manager and was surprised he even got the job in the first place: “I was shortlisted for interview and turned up at the designated day and time, I only remember the first question which was something like, ‘tell us what you know about mental health?’

“I felt like I’d been hit by a boulder as I knew noting about mental health and I was only on question one. Shall I try my best to answer it, or shall I be honest? I chose the latter, explaining that the job description didn’t mention mental health… and that the sheet outlining Seaview’s role in mental health was not sent to me. I felt ‘well that’s it then’ I’ve miserably failed’…”

But he hadn’t failed, he wrote about his surprise at being offered the job and then realising the daunting task he’d taken on when he opened the doors of the Southwater Centre for business: “So here I was, day one of my new employment opening the doors to the public. As they filed in I thought, ‘what have I let myself in for?'”

That was in 1989 and John Evans was to remain closely involved with Seaview for more than 20 years, winning an Mayoral Award in 2005. He was seen as the driving force behind the development of the Seaview project. Paying tribute to him just after his death, projects manager Sue Burgess said: “…through passion, determination and hard work he set up vital services that continue to make a difference to the lives of homeless and vulnerable people in the town today.”

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Steve Manwaring, director of Hastings Voluntary Action said at the time that John Evans showed: “…real courage and commitment,” adding, “John was a tireless advocate for a client group whose needs have often been overlooked.”

The need for a facility such as Seaview grew from the ‘Care in the Community’ policy pursued by the government back in the 1980s, John Evans wrote: “A small group of us met to discuss the concerns they had, particularly for St Leonards, in looking at the fallout from the gradual closure of Hellingly Hospital. We saw former patients who had been moved to Hastings and St Leonards wandering about with noting to do.”

The concerns of that small group ultimately led to the creation of the Seaview Project and since 1985 it has been providing an open access wellbeing centre at the heart of St Leonards-on-Sea having been set up by Helene White and Barbara Silvester, with the help of Jane Amstad: “Without the enthusiasm and energy that they had at the time there is no doubt there would have been no Seaview,” Mr Evans later wrote.

He had very clear views too on why the situation had arisen saying: “there had been a long-term misunderstanding of the South of England with the general view that everywhere is wealthy. While it’s true that much of the area is well-heeled there have always been pockets, particularly on the south coast, of extreme deprivation. Hastings, historically has been one such place.”

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Step one was to open a day centre and this happened in 1984 in the church hall of the Congregational Church. During most of the first year the project operated with one full-time and eight part-time volunteers plus two workers under the government job creation scheme, the Community Programme.

Within a year grant funding had been sourced which allowed two part-time paid coordinators to be put in place, at a fundamental level the project was providing somewhere that was warm, welcoming and comfortable and for those who used the centre these were the things  missing from their lives away from Seaview.

From day one Seaview was all about open-access and welcomed anyone over the age of 18: “If you ask what I thought was the most important part of the day centre it’s the tea bar, this was also the first point of contact for new visitors so everyone could be given a welcome and those requiring help could be directed to the appropriate person,” Mr Evans wrote.

Seaview spent four years in the church hall but if the project was to grow and to develop it was felt it needed a home of its own and towards the end of 1988 work began to find a new, permanent home.

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The Seaview Project is located in The Southwater Centre, a rather anonymous building in St Leonards.

It was a group called The Robert Tressell Workshops who identified what is now known as The Southwater Centre, a building that had been used as a postal sorting office for many years. The Robert Tressell group had a remit to improve the lives of the impoverished and disadvantaged in the town.

The new centre opened on October 2nd 1989, one week later John Evans arrived as manager. In those early days the building housed the Seaview Project day centre, a sheltered employment workshop for those with long term mental health issues, a housing advice project, a drug and alcohol advisory agency and an area for local artists to work.

John Evans wrote: “In theory, this was an exciting opportunity for co-operative working, but in practise it didn’t quite work.”

Mr Evans ultimately became the project’s chief executive, a post he held until 2005 but even after stepping down from that role he continued to work for Seaview until 2010.

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