The new ‘Rochdale Pioneers’: social club for the over 50s attracts international attention

Rochdale and Oldham reporter Mike Dodd introduces us to and takes us behind the scenes of a social group of which he is a Member – Heywood, Middleton Rochdale Circle (HMR Circle). 

The Circle model has attracted national and international interest thanks to its unique recipe for success and is now being replicated in other areas.

During lockdown HMR Circle has not slowed down – just adapted services to continue to support its 1000-strong membership.

“The Circle”, as HMR Circle is affectionately known, has truly spread its wings of late to other parts of the world.

Not one – but five – delegations from South Korea have visited the pioneering town of Rochdale to view for themselves the way in which the over 50s group HMR Circle operates – giving the organisation its debut on Korean TV. In addition both Japan and America have sent representatives to see if the approach could be replicated in their countries.

This interest is brought about by the success of the work done by HMR Circle to pull together the community it exists to serve and reduce isolation for older people in a range of ways – and you cannot help but notice the similarity of the historic Rochdale Pioneers.

Where did it all begin? From its inception, on June 12, 2012, HMR Circle has gone from strength to strength – organising more than 2000 different events and activities since then in order to provide its near 1000-strong membership with opportunities to enjoy a broader, more interesting, active, and satisfying life.

What’s unique about its approach is HMR Circle’s belief that people can be each other’s solution. It’s part-social club, part-handyperson service, part-befriending scheme or self-help, and part-volunteer drivers service all homegrown in Rochdale – though it intends to extend this in the near future.

It is not a traditional single focus service more a programme of older people action, it is of, for, and by older people themselves.

It seems to be a winning formula: it is a sustainable business, experiencing growth across all areas, including membership numbers, service delivery, staffing levels and of course volunteers.

And all this is achieved with an office staff that can be counted on one hand. It is not a multi-national, nor a Government or Local Authority service.

The lynchpin of HMR Circle is Mark Wynn, the director who has been there from the start.

Mark, whose background is in engineering, found himself at the helm of HMR Circle in 2012 after selling his welding company and responding to an advert in the local paper.

He said: “I got the feeling that we were really onto something with the HMR Circle offer and, if we persevered, it would pay off – and it did!”

HMR Circle Director, Mark Wynn

This ‘can-do’ attitude continues to be the driving force for the relatively small team of five employees. Beyond the staff team, the success of HMR Circle depends on the Members themselves to self-organise and support each other to take advantage of the services and activities on offer.

As Operations Manager Leanne Chorlton says: “A huge amount of thanks for an incredible year has to go to our Members and volunteers who help make HMR Circle the success that it is.”

Leading the way are ‘super hosts’, who look after the actual event as it happens, on the day, making sure everything runs smoothly.

Other Members do ring rounds, complete event attendance sheets, collate payment slips, despatch the monthly events calendar, take bookings, help with the organisation of the Volunteer Drivers Service, and contribute to the expansion of HMR Circle into Shaw, Crompton, Royton, to Moorside and Prestwich.

HMR Circle Members out and about

Since 2018, HMR Circle has delivered the borough’s Volunteer Drivers Service; handling more than 1500 transport requests every month for older and vulnerable adults who struggle to use public transport for medical appointments, day services, or simply social events.

Every day HMR Circle has volunteer “Neighbourhood Helpers” out doing jobs that older people struggle to get someone to come out to do, such as gardening, decorating, moving furniture, and changing light bulbs, at an affordable, discounted price.

Kim Ho, Special Projects Coordinator, says: “A lot of our Members rely on the support they get from our practical services.”

Amazingly, some 5000 jobs have been completed, relieving the recipients of worrying jobs that can blight their daily lives, and let them live a fuller life.

So, just like the Rochdale Pioneers, HMR Circle is built on the notion of co-operation between Members: everyone works together for a common goal, that of good service over the pursuit of profit.

So, what’s next for HMR Circle?

The team have a strong focus on evidencing their work – and work closely with Manchester Metropolitan University to measure the impact they have on their Members. Using this evidence, they intend to grow the model and show other communities across the UK how to create their own Circle – with Haringey in London and Abingdon in Oxfordshire amongst the areas first to take up the model outside the Greater Manchester region.

Although it has proven its longevity when many similar services have failed to survive, HMR Circle has not been immune to the effects of coronavirus.

The pandemic has caused HMR Circle to suspend their usual activities. Instead, they have repurposed the HMR Circle Volunteer Drivers Service into delivering emergency food and shopping, collection and delivery of prescriptions, and the distribution of 3000 pieces of PPE Equipment.

Their social offer has become an online programme during the lockdown with opportunities for Members to socialise using the Circles Connect Facebook Page which has all sorts of different activities such as craft, comedy, meditation, music, and quizzes.

They have also continued to produce a weekly eNewsletter with news and information; as well as a fortnightly Boredom Buster – a printable magazine with games, quizzes, recipes, and poems to help pass the time away.

For Members who aren’t online, a system of ring rounds has been developed, to make sure no Member feels alone during lockdown.

Mark Wynn says: “The entire team at HMR Circle is incredibly proud of what we have achieved.”

“Exciting plans are already afoot for when the lockdown is eased with HMR Circle expanding into new areas as it further develops in and around Rochdale and Oldham, and to continue with the initiatives that have built our community.”

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