Annie Whelan – maintaining the proud traditions of Seaview’s founders

Next weekend Annie Whelan will step down as Chief Officer at the Seaview Project in St Leonards.

It brings to an end her four year tenure at the head of the project that is based in the Southwater Centre on Hatherley Road and before she was Chief Officer Annie had been a trustee of the project for four years so she knows the place very well indeed.

While she is sad to be leaving Annie goes with the knowledge that without the work she put in immediately after taking up her post it’s unlikely that the Seaview Project would still be around today and keeping the doors open is, she says, her proudest achievement in the job.

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The Seaview Project in St Leonards

When Annie took the reins Seaview’s funding from East Sussex County Council was facing a cut of 80 per cent and that Annie says, would have destabilised other funding. On top of that Seaview had already been funding its intensive housing support work through its reserves and that was a situation that simply was not sustainable.

Talking about when she took over as Chief Officer Annie is quite blunt about the situation in which the project found itself: “If nothing had changed then within a year we’d have been facing closure,” she says. While as a trustee she’d been aware there were problems in terms of on-going funding it was not until she took over as Chief Officer she realised the full extent, “it was a scary time,” she says.

…keeping the doors open is, she says, her proudest achievement in the job.

Undaunted she called on her 30 years of experience in the sector and started pitching for money from any sources she thought were relevant.

She has applied for funding from more than 60 different pots of money either through negotiation or by applying to relevant trusts. The local community have also been incredibly supportive in giving independent donations, unsolicited fundraising and supporting Seaview’s annual Big Sleep fundraiser. In four years that has brought in more that £3million and has meant that Seaview has kept its doors open and has continued to thrive and help hundreds of rough sleepers and those living on the margins of society every year.

Annie says: “I am most proud of keeping the boat afloat and of keeping the doors open at a time when it was all very uncertain.”

When she began her career in the 1980s Annie didn’t set out to work with the homeless and rough sleepers. She originally studied art and after graduating she moved to the US where she taught art to community groups and then went on to work in Ohio with those who had mental health issues in a time long before mental health was being given the priority it is today.

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Art was being used as a form of therapy and Annie became immersed in what was going on, eventually helping establish permanent centres for those suffering with mental health problems and over three years she secured funding to open two centres in two separate counties that were all staffed by the people who used them. Annie is not just happy that both those centres still exist today but immensely proud that one was named after her, ‘Annie’s Outreach Centre’.

Returning to England in the early years of the new century Annie went to work in advocacy and over five years she worked on establishing advocacy teams across East Sussex and Berkshire providing advocacy support to those with mental health problems in prison, inpatient and community settings.

Motivating Annie is personal experience: “My mother was seriously mentally ill when I was growing up, she attempted suicide regularly and sometimes she would lock me out of the house at night, so I know what it’s like to be outside at night with nowhere to go,” she says.

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The Big Sleep has been running for a number of years and is Seaview’s single biggest fundraising event.

Perhaps that’s why Annie is professionally more fulfilled when she has direct contact with the people she is trying to help and support and why she has had such an impact during her time at Seaview.

At the foundation of the work she has done during the years she believes in the people she is working with, believing they can do more for themselves, that they can recover and establish and latch onto their own goals in order to aid their recovery. She says she has always wanted to establish ‘person centred’ mental health services.

“Never give up on people, they can recover, I want to give people the opportunity to move forward, whatever ‘move forward’ means to them,” Annie says.

She cites the US and Scandinavia as the areas of the world that have led the way in developing mental health policies, especially around using people who have had their own issues, and have recovered from them, helping others progress.

In 2016 one big step Annie oversaw at Seaview was the formation of the Seaview RADAR team, employing former services users to work in the centre across a range of areas: “People who have had their own mental health or addiction recovery journey are equipped to provide peer support to help others, they can design activities and help those currently suffering from their own mental health problems to focus on what might assist them in their own recovery,” she says.

RADAR stands for:

  • Refocus
  • Assess
  • Develop
  • Activate
  • Recover

And RADAR asks:

  • Are you experiencing or recovering from mental health issues?
  • Are you recovering or are still having issues with alcohol misuse?
  • Are you recovering or are still having issues with N.P.S (new psycho-active substances – previously known as legal highs)?
  • Are you recovering or are still having issues with general drugs misuse?

RADAR uses that peer support and other methods that work for clients to help their recovery. Seaview uses creativity, arts, music, personal reflection as the tools to initiate its RADAR programme. The groups are led by employed peer facilitators and volunteer peer leaders who have experienced the process of recovery themselves first hand and are able to help lead others through the recovery process.

In 2017 linking her representation on the government National Information Board with Seaview, Annie applied for and was successful in establishing Seaview as the first voluntary sector led Digital Health Pathfinder. Seaview’s work on digital health and homelessness is being presented nationally by NHS Digital as vital and is currently being duplicated in Manchester.

In 2018 Seaview was one of eight National winners of a GSK/ Kings Fund impact award for its work on improving health for excluded groups.

Annie says: “Seaview has a unique understanding of complex issues our clients are trying to deal with and we try to maintain a diverse environment that people can use to feel safe in.”

All of this, she says: “Allows for a supportive, non-judgemental, confidential environment allowing individuals to express themselves freely.”

While Annie bids farewell to the project next Friday (September 20th) she’s not going completely. Her successor, Dave Perry, takes up post on September 27th – the same day that The Big Sleep 2019 takes place – and for a year Annie will be providing support for a few hours each month.

She leaves the Chief Officer’s post proud of what she has achieved and also proud to have, she believes, continued to adhere to the ethos and principles that brought about the formation of Seaview in the first place 35 years ago.

Screenshot 2019-09-12 07.52.00

 

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