Harehills lamppost poems celebrate Manbassadors mental health volunteers

Poem portraits capturing the philosophy of volunteers behind a groundbreaking mental health initiative are now adorning lampposts in east Leeds.

By Georgina Morris
Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 6:00 am

Created by local writer Peter Spafford and presented alongside photographs by Lizzie Coombes, each of the six pieces represents one of the city’s original Manbassadors.

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Barber Richard, fish fryer Steve, grocer Sunny, trainer Hayley and pharmacists Balwinder and Jayne were among the first business owners to be trained to identify signs of isolation and potential self-harm or suicide in their customers and to signpost them to help available from various organisations.

Barber Richard is one of the Manbassadors featured in the exhibition. Picture: Lizzie Combes

Each has shown their support over the past two years by being ready to listen to others, taking the time to have a chat and making copies of the Manbassadors newsletter and materials available to customers.

And now that message is being taken out onto the streets for an exhibition that aims to celebrate the project.

Peter said: “I’ve never had poems on lampposts before – that’s new for me. Sometimes in the past, we’ve worked in a community centre and put all the portraits hanging on a washing line. People recognise others in their community and learn something about them that they didn’t know before.

“The fact they’re in public view is a way for people to realise that’s not just somebody who’s a face, they have a life and strong feelings about things, a conviction about the way they work. It’s a way for people to connect.

Balwinder, a pharmacist, is another of the Manbassadors who appears in the poem portraits. Picture: Lizzie Combes

“It’s very rare that you see a poem so big on a building or a lamppost. It’s something to stop people in their tracks and maybe bring a bit of light relief, a bit of a spring in their step.”

Manbassadors, set up to support people’s mental health with a simple intervention at a very local level, was established by the Orion Consortium – a partnership involving Feel Good Factor, Space2 and Zest – thanks to a grant from the Male Suicide Prevention Fund.

Project coordinator Lawrence Glyn said: “The project itself originally came about as a response to the sadly high rates of male suicide in LS9. In Leeds men are five times more likely to take their own life than women. If they’re isolated, they’ll still pop down to the shop to get fags or a packet of crisps though, or to the chippy twice a week.

“In a barbers or in a chippy, potentially you go in and you have to wait five minutes. In the waiting time, if there are magazines or leaflets in a stand that are free, it might be something they pick up.

Steve at Ollies Fisheries was one of the early supporters of the project. Picture: Lizzie Combes

“Steve at Ollies Fisheries has been having lots of discussions there. They have the Manbassadors magazine there and it’s only one person in at a time. With the magazines being the only thing out, people sometimes pick them up and the two men then start talking about it.”

Further funding has been provided more recently by the National Lottery’s emergency Covid fund, allowing the scheme to be extended to men and women across Leeds. It included money for an art project to celebrate the first phase in LS8 and LS9.

Having seen Peter’s work before, Lawrence thought it would be a great fit for a project that is all about conversation. “I must say, I think the final portraits are amazing,” he said. “They’re full of the personality of each individual.”

In preparing the poem portraits, Peter interviewed each Manbassador over the phone before putting together a draft that they could review.

Hayley, a trainer, is another of the Manbassadors in the exhibition. Picture: Lizzie Combes

“I think the critical thing about writing a poem portrait is listening,” he said. “In a way, me listening to them is about mirroring what the project is about to some degree.

"I really enjoy doing poem portraits. I love talking to people. I have some fantastic conversations with people who were strangers to me. There’s something about asking big questions like ‘what makes life worthwhile for you?’. People really open up.

"For me, it’s a real pleasure to be the person asking those questions and to be on the receiving end of so much honesty.”

Where to see the exhibition

The poem portraits are on display until the end of of May on lampposts outside the following locations:

D-News, 448 Harehills Lane, Harehills, LS9 6HJ.

Pharmacist Jayne is the subject of another of the poem portraits. Picture: Lizzie Coombes

East Leeds Health Centre, 78A Osmondthorpe Lane, Osmondthorpe, LS9 9BL.

The Gym Leeds, York Road, Leeds, LS9 9AH.

Imaan Pharmacy Harehills, 262-266 Harehills Lane, Harehills, LS9 7BD.

Ollies Fisheries, 8 Easy Road, Leeds, LS9 0AZ.

W2 Barbershop, 131 Easterly Road, Leeds, LS8 2TP.

The Yorkshire Evening Post has teamed up with Leeds 2023 for Hello Leeds, a campaign celebrating the cultural and community organisations that help to make Leeds so special.

Please contact [email protected] to tell us about the projects and organisations that are making a difference in the communities where you live.

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The Yorkshire Evening Post has teamed up with Leeds 2023 for the Hello Leeds campaign celebrating cultural and community organisations in the city.