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Amanda’s Reader Story – “Running the group has improved my mental health”

Written by Maisie Jeynes, 23rd January 2023

Amanda is a Reader Leader at a peer support group in Doncaster. Here she tells us about her experience of setting up a new group and how it's improved her mental health.

Books are my life. My parents read to me and my sister long before we learnt to read, and even though I had loads of books at home, I used to spend a lot of time in my local library. I just couldn’t get enough of books and it’s been that way throughout my whole life.

In 2020 I saw a Facebook advert asking for volunteers for The Reader and signed up for the Read to Lead training in Doncaster. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to volunteer for a charity that reads!

I belong to a peer support group, which has really helped me with my mental health. I contacted them and suggested setting up a Shared Reading group. They were keen and offered to help. In February, we had our first session and the response was really positive. We have a core group of regulars and others join us if they feel like it. The group is very mixed and can include people with mental health difficulties, people with physical and or learning disabilities, and people from the BAME community.

I’ve found that a short story or an extract works really well with our group, always leading to lots of discussion. One of the first extracts we did was from 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe. I hadn’t read it in years, and we got a good response to it from our group members.

After the session, one of the members came up to me and told me how much he enjoyed reading it. He'd read aloud during the session and told me this was the first time he'd done so in over 20 years. The following week he told me that he'd gone home and downloaded the Kindle app on his phone and read the whole book. I got the impression he wasn't usually a reader, but something had happened to him to make him want to read the book in full. This was just amazing and I was bowled over by his actions. It gave me so much confidence. For the first few sessions I'd been quite anxious but to have something like that happen, so early, really spurred me on.

Running the Shared Reading group has improved my mental health. I suffer from anxiety but I got to a point during one session where I wasn’t questioning myself at all and was actually really enjoying it. That’s when I realised my confidence had improved.

Leading a group has given me a focus too, as I love seeing how other people enjoy the literature. It’s so satisfying to see how Shared Reading is making an impact on their lives too. It’s nice to be able to give something back to my community.

We recently read an extract from 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This book is very special to me. I loved reading it as a child and as an adult it’s one of my ‘go to' books. The description of the garden coming to life combines two of my passions, gardening and reading. I found that when I was struggling with my mental health during lockdown, I couldn't actually pick up a book so I would listen to
an audiobook instead. This meant I could concentrate on the words in the book and took me away from my thoughts. I was able to imagine myself in the garden with Mary and Dickon, and it made me feel more connected to nature even though we couldn't go out.

“Sometimes since I've been in the garden I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing, drawing, and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”

From 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Recently, we read an extract from 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens. I was a bit concerned because we hadn't done anything like this before and I thought it might be a difficult read as it's very wordy. I shared my concerns with the group before we started, but they were very open to it and agreed to give it a go. We surprised ourselves, as we all thoroughly appreciated reading it. It pays to be bold and explore literature outside of your comfort zone!

I get so much out of our Shared Reading group. Everyone should give it a go. You don't have to interact if you don't want to, you can just sit and listen. I often share the example of a man who comes to our group. He was very sceptical in the beginning, saying he wasn't sure if Shared Reading was for him, but now he's one of the main contributors at the sessions. He finds the discussion interesting and has been amazed at what we've read. He values the content and the discussion, and goes home to reflect on what we read and the comments that others have made. So, to anyone not sure about Shared Reading, my suggestion would be to come along and give it a go!

Shared Reading is very different to other groups I've been involved with. I never know how the group is going to go, and there's always something new. You just don't know how group members will react to the choice of literature. Issues I thought might be a good talking point have not materialized and the text may take us on a different journey, but until you're actually there, you just don't know. Somebody will come out with a comment or thought and I think 'Wow! I didn’t think of it from that perspective'. I get surprised every time.

As a charity we rely on the generous support of individuals and organisations to help us change lives through Shared Reading. A donation allows us to train volunteers, provide resources for groups and help reach more people. We want to make sure everyone can attend a Shared Reading group, no matter their background, income or situation, and we'll be so grateful for your help.

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