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The Beating Soul

Flo's hadn't been open long and I was going through a really bad mental health crisis. I was quite ill. When I started to recover, I wanted to do something positive and productive. I remember coming across something about Flo's reopening. And then I saw Annie's name. I knew Annie through the council. So one day I walked in through the door to have a look. It took me a few times of just walking around the park and building up the gumption to go in. It was all quite empty. The community didn’t own it at that time. I literally went in and I thought, no, God, this isn't the right thing for me. But as I walked out, I bumped into Annie. She threw her arms around me and said, what you doing? And that was the start of everything.

I used to go down every Wednesday, to set up and sell the craft supplies. Makena was very much in charge and Helen was involved as well. Everyone was so positive and lovely, it felt really good to do stuff. And it just naturally evolved. This event's happening, well do you need cakes baking? I was volunteering, but I felt as if I was being held. It was good to have that routine each week. It was such a positive, creative team. It wasn’t all about me recovering. My mental health doesn't define me. It influences who I am, and it makes me different to how I was before, but why the hell should it define me? It's not about being defined by your hidden disability. It's about doing something that enables you.

Setting up the organisation seemed so exciting. The fact that there was this link to the community in Oxford, living where I was, slightly outside of the community. And it’s less than a 10-minute walk away. My role within Flo’s was low stress. The craft shop didn’t work out, but it was replaced with the refills and everything. I started doing a bit of finances and then the job at Flo’s came up. It was covering all the admin for the centre. They said, why don't you apply for it? It was 16 hours a week, it was using my skill set, so I applied for it and I got it. It was a big step taking on the role, but I was able to do it thanks to the people around me. I had Makena, Helen and Annie. They helped me build my confidence back up. 

Before Flo’s, I think I'd lost every ounce of confidence I had. I’ve always been that person who asks, how high is the bar? I’ll go that high. So to suddenly be in an environment where people would say, no, that’s enough, what you’ve done is brilliant. That made such a positive difference. You can also see the impact you’re having on the community. If I was a new parent, I know I could walk through that door with a baby in my arms and feel comfortable. I could just sit there and have a cup of tea. Somebody would say hello. Going into Flo's feels a bit like going into a warm hug. You've got certain people there that are so welcoming, positive and calm. And you knew that all hell wasn't gonna break loose! It's very calm, it's very relaxed.

When Covid happened, we were all separate and we were all at home. That's when I was finding the job a struggle, just because it was getting so big. And it doesn't play well to my limitations of trying to manage all those different things. Also being apart from people, and what was going on at the time and everything. So I think that's why I stepped back from the job. I just couldn't do it and function. Annie was lovely about it. She totally got it. She gave me some time to think about it and then I did. After that, what was difficult was not having the same contact with Flo's. But everyone was struggling with Covid. Everyone was struggling with everything. It was a very weird time.

Flo's has changed dramatically. But I still feel if I go in there, if you're having a bad day and you want to have a cup of tea, it's the right place to feel grounded and calm. There’s so much positive energy around you. What's nice to see is the mums meeting there with little ones. You get that sense of community, a sense of this as somewhere that people enjoy. A lot of the time the mums are really stressed! But it’s good they can come here and have a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, and meet somebody. That's what it's all about. Especially in those early years. I think people underestimate how hard it can be, especially if you don't know anyone, especially if you've just moved somewhere or worked and now you've stopped. It's not too expensive either, that's another important thing.

We want people to have good, happy-where-possible lives. It comes from that sense of belonging. Having that bond, that cohesiveness, knowing you're a part of something that can help you if things aren't going well. Non-judgement is also so important. It’s about always having a smile, asking people if they’re okay. It's being aware of what's going on around you, sensing if somebody needs something or being able to flag to somebody else. Even just providing space for somebody to sit. Making sure that that cup of tea is a nice cup of tea. Flo’s has that power to get people talking in their community. And they might start doing things together outside of Flo's.

I used to go into town, to Blackwells. They used to have this thing where they would not disturb you if you read books. I used to take the kids in there and sit for hours with all the children's books. It was just really nice to know that no one was going to say, you've been here for 2 hours and you haven’t bought anything. At Flo's it’s similar. You can get one cup of tea and just sit there watching the park go by. I don't have enough money to buy much, buying a cup of tea is about all I can afford, so therefore, knowing that I can just sit there and watch the world go by on that veranda is lovely.

This morning, I went down to see Katie, and before I went to see her, I gave myself 15 minutes walking around the park. The blossom's started to come out. You can breathe. That’s the thing I love about the veranda. You can be in but out. You can see the park but you’re sheltered from the weather. And sometimes that's what I need, to be sat outside with a cup of tea, to be able to breathe. Flo's is a unique place because it’s the park, it's big enough to be a proper cafe, it's got a wonderful nursery attached, and there's lots of lovely other things going on. There is such a free flow within the building itself. It's airy, and the front door is always open, apart from when it's really cold. You've got waves of people coming and going. And from the office side of things, with mums coming in, you've also got a bit of a free-flow aspect there. It never used to feel like going into work.

Flo's has enriched my life. I'm so pleased the space is being used again, that it didn't just shut. For a time it was a derelict building in the middle of the park. But now, Flo's is like the beating soul of Florence Park. It's alive and it's happening. Surely the world would be a better place if we had more places like Flo's? Wouldn't you want that for somebody new coming into a community? The thing about Oxford is, it's such a transitionary place, people come and go from everywhere, so get them to Flo's! Get Flo's everywhere!


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