When 64-year-old Sheila Ball moved to South Wales from Kent in January 2020, she knew it would take a while to make friends. But as she settled into her new home in the beautiful Upper Afan Valley she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Then lockdown hit and she found herself isolated, going through treatment alone.
However, once it was safe to mingle again, Sheila found a whole new social circle, thanks to Cymer Afan Community Library in Port Talbot.
Mixing with new people and taking up art with a group gave her mental health a real boost at that difficult time.
“I was only here for six months before I was diagnosed with cancer and I was backwards and forwards from the hospital having treatment,” says Sheila, who’s now doing well after chemo and is on medication for the next four years.
“Then I started taking myself off for some me-time, walking the dog, and I met up with a neighbour who suggested coming to the library for coffee morning, yoga or knit-and-natter.“
"She told me to come up and join and now I’m not often away from the place.
"I love it here, it’s so welcoming, all the volunteers and managers are so lovely. The moment you walk in you’re offered a drink and a warm welcome. It’s the only real place to go in the valleys.”
Describing the community hub as a “library” doesn’t really do it justice.
Its current incarnation started in 2014, when the council withdrew funding for the library.
Threatened with closure, a team of locals sprang into action to keep it alive. Now it’s a thriving place where people come for free WiFi, printing and activities that bring them together.
Although the valley is a beautiful place to live, people can find themselves isolated – and Covid exacerbated that.
The library’s development manager Lindsey Thomas sums it up when she says the area was “forgotten about”.
“Transport links are very poor and there’s low car ownership in the area,” she explains.
“Buses stop at 7pm, so if you’re working shifts you just can’t get home. It’s become a deprived area and it’s difficult for people to try and get themselves out of their situation and make a living.
“With Covid, we saw a definite change in people. We used to have thriving coffee mornings, but after lockdown you feel that people who were normally very sociable didn’t want to come out.
“But the funding we get from money raised through The Health Lottery has been a godsend to create a space where people can join, chat and meet people in similar situations.
"We have a mother and baby group who are here chatting and we’ve built the coffee morning back up.
"We’re very lucky that we’ve got a local artist who runs the fantastic group where Sheila’s a regular. It’s a great place to make friends and catch up – and now people are starting to do things together outside of this too.”
There’s also a much-needed community supermarket.
“Some people find there’s a stigma to using a food bank,” says Lindsey.
“People are very proud in the Upper Afan Valley and we don’t like to ask for help, so we’ve set up a community supermarket where you pay £3.50 and we give you ten items. Everybody’s struggling at the moment, even if they’re working.”
Cymer Afan Community Library cuts across the generations, offering movie screenings for local school children too.
“Growing up, my parents weren’t rich, but our lives back then compared to what the children are going through now were so different,” says Lindsey.
“It’s so sad. Kids struggle through the holidays without breakfast clubs and free school dinners. So for 50 kids to come here, watch a film and get a little bag of sweets – they love it.
"Our community also helped a Ukrainian family who moved here. Their little boy couldn’t speak very good English, but he loved the comic books.”
And Lindsey and Sheila have a clear message for every person who plays The Health Lottery and supports vital projects like this: "thank you."
“It’s amazing,” says Sheila. “Come and join us and you’ll see what we do here. I wasn’t good at art at school, but once I came to the group I realised lots of people were starting at square one so I wasn’t alone.”
You’re keeping an essential community project going,” says Lindsey. “More than 5,000 people visited us last year and that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for money raised through The Health Lottery. We’re so grateful and we wouldn’t survive without that.”
Cymer Afan Community Library: Renewing Our Community Spirit
Cymer Afan Community Library Factfile
18-month project to combat isolation and bring all ages together
Range of weekly and monthly sessions including coffee morning, art, film and book club
Funding of £15,000 raised through Health Lottery Wales