The Right Key

Knowledge and Learning Manager Zoë Anderson talks to Sheila Smyth, Development Manager of The Right Key, about their Recovery Café in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. It’s open to everyone in the community, but gives a particular welcome to people recovering from addiction.

Since the start of the pandemic, "We’ve lost no one," says Sheila. "We were able to keep people together, keep our work going, and keep people sane and sober. I'm proud of the people, the peer mentors and the people who have been on our programme, being able to walk through this step by step, and come out whole together. 

"During lockdown people who didn't normally drink, drank like mad things because they'd nothing else to do. People have come out of lockdown with massive alcohol dependencies that they didn't have before. And yet we had a group of recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, people in mental health recovery and who had experienced bereavement and sadness and brokenness - and they stayed clean and sober."

Music and creativity for healing

The Right Key uses music and crafts to support people in recovery. "We use traditional things like counselling as support for addiction, but we also use creative things. Music is the core and centre of what we do."

Sheila is a musician and composer whose work with The Right Key began with a series of music workshops in a rehabilitation centre. At the end of the 12-week residential programme, participants turned to her because they wanted to stay together, to keep singing. "That’s how we formed the recovery café." The National Lottery Community Fund has supported the group since 2013, including grants of £159,409 and £199,136.

The Right Key

The group has worked in prisons and clinics, but the recovery café is the heart of the work. Starting in a small building in Dromore, they moved 18 months ago to larger premises, a former schoolhouse in Loughbrickland. They were able to bring all existing programmes to the new home. "We have people who come from Lisburn, Hillsborough, Belfast, people who drive from Antrim. The beauty of it is that it has a rural feel to it. It means that you can come out of your situation, whatever the drama is, to a safe, peaceful place by a lake."

Other activities include woodworking – making musical instruments as well as toys and gifts – and guitar and piano tuition. Before the pandemic, they offered some rooms for crisis housing, and performed concerts in the community. "That brings about a lot of social change: imparting knowledge, challenging stigma." But for Sheila, "the golden thread that runs through all of that is people's stories. We wrap it all in music, then take the music out, harnessing that recovery."

Adapting during lockdown

Before the pandemic, The Right Key had been renovating its premises. "We were going to launch our building on 27 June! That was going to be a big event, there was a VIP coming over to launch it." Instead, they had to lock down.

"There was such a sadness, because Loughbrickland means so much to so many people. We'd hoped we'd be able to stay open, but strangely, addiction didn't come under a necessary service. We needed to sustain all of our people, we didn't want any of them taking backward steps in recovery."

They applied to the Fund for support. "Thank God for the Lottery, for just being able to ring and speak to our funding officer. We didn't furlough any staff, the need was so great – we worked incredibly hard all through lockdown. We were still paying rent and wages." At the same time, they had lost income from their café and craft shop, and from the outside contracts they were developing. The Fund responded with flexible support: a new one-off grant of £20,000, permission to reallocate existing funds, and signposting to other funders who could help with other elements of the project.

Technical support was also vital. "We applied to the Lottery for someone to set us up on Microsoft Teams. She was amazing, she had the whole thing done in 48 hours. Everyone got connected, even people that are not familiar with laptops."

When we saw each other again on Teams, for the first time – all the wee squares and all the faces – it was like throwing a lifeline. The laughter!
Sheila Smyth

Along with counselling and peer support programmes, they kept working through music. "It was different because everybody’s WiFi goes at a different speed! Singing is a big thing with us. We work very hard towards concerts, in teaching people, layering those harmonies. When we went on Teams, that was impossible.

"But it was a lot of fun. We did sing, and the singing was reasonably good, to be honest. There was a lot of laughter, because when people were a couple of bars behind, and the others were hearing that in a different speed, it was quite humorous. We had such a laugh. With what everyone's been through, it was a complete tonic."

A new creative writing programme was particularly successful. "That was just liquid gold! We started off on Teams with people who had never written. They absolutely rose to it." For Sheila, "The beauty of creative writing is that it's not just the one hour on Teams, they go off and write stories, which kept them busy the rest of the week." It’s become a major new strand for the organisation, with 14 to 16 people in the weekly creative writing class.

Cherry tree at The Old Schoolhouse Recovery Café

"Maybe half of them are using their writing to heal. It's become a cathartic thing: they write about things that were maybe painful in the past. In some sessions, people have broken when they've read the story out. We just stay with that moment, because it's a healing moment. They write it out, they read it out, and then they move through it."

Sheila's picture of the cherry tree at The Old Schoolhouse Recovery Café was used as a creative writing prompt.

"The stories were beautiful: hope for the future, fruitfulness. A couple of the ladies who had gone to school as children in our building remembered the tree being planted – it took them right back!

Keeping the ship steady

Online meetings were a way to support staff as well as service users. "Once a week, we had a big session with everyone on it, where I would encourage them and chat to them. We also had our peer mentors' and leaders' meeting online, which encouraged them as well.

"At the beginning of Covid, everybody was vulnerable, nobody knew what the pandemic was going to bring. As an organisation, we had to keep the ship steady, keep walking and not be overwhelmed by what was happening. And the sadness of what was happening."

That meant paying active attention to morale. "Making sure that, as leaders, we led the others through, kept them motivated, kept them strong. To be honest, we just dug deep. There wasn't any other way of doing that. As leaders, as a board, as peer mentors, we met often on Teams, just talked it through and offloaded."

Working with a prison and secure unit

During lockdown, the project had to halt its visits to prisons – but Nathan, the project's music tutor, took his classes online for the first time. "He didn't really like it, he likes being with someone to teach, but he did brilliantly at it."

They actively took these solutions to other organisations, finding ways to keep working with female prisoners and young offenders at Hydebank Wood prison. "They had limited activities and few visitors, dreadful for them. We were able to do the same at Shannon Clinic, which is a hospital for people who have mental health problems [and may be referred] through the criminal justice system."

These students made huge progress during lockdown. "They really applied themselves, really committed. Some of the guys have turned out to be amazing guitarists now, they were working away all the time. A couple of girls have really scaled up on their piano playing.

"It's not just the lesson, it's the fact that they can access the piano, and practice. If they're playing every day, all that music's gone in, all that peace coming from it. They say it has literally kept them sane, to be able to play."

Leaving lockdown

The pace of leaving lockdown has varied in different parts of the UK. The Right Key returned to the Old Schoolhouse from the first of June, preparing their building to reopen with new social distancing measures. The café, which seats 60 people, will be open for up to 25. They can no longer use microphones, due to the risk of infected droplets being passed from singer to singer. Throughout, it's a balance of opening up and staying safe, always following official guidelines.

"We'll sing, but we'll be out in the garden, two metres apart - which is okay when it's not raining!" On wet days, they'll break into smaller groups, spaced out in the different rooms of the building. "You can have four, five people in the workshed, people in the music room, we would take people out to the café. It takes tighter organisation, but it's workable for us, which we're very thankful for – because for a lot of people it hasn’t been workable."

They've found that some service users need to take it slowly. "We almost need to release people from lockdown, bringing them back in a very gentle way. We've been meeting up with them, having a coffee, unlocking them almost, now they've told us they want to be unlocked.

"These are people who have been active and capable, but with underlying health conditions. Because they've shielded, they're now afraid to come out. They haven't been to the shops, they haven't been anywhere to see that there is a sense of normality." The Right Key is supporting them online, while offering a return in gentle stages. "'When you feel you want to come out, we'll drive to where you are, and bring you in the car – sit in the back with your mask on.' We feel we need to physically go and get them, whenever we get that call."

Others want to stay for a weekend: "We're offering that, free of charge, to people who need that retreat." They're also working with other recovery groups, who can take over the whole building, taking part in singing workshops without having to leave their own bubbles.

For some, this has been a chance to start again, to take their skills and start new businesses: "micro enterprises, starting up under The Right Key social enterprise. They're taking their courage, and saying, 'I'm going to try this.' It's changed the way people thought."

One has now started her own hairdressing business. "She's Covid-19 approved, she has a certificate – she's taken one of our little rooms, and now she's seeking customers in her own area. She's had the courage to do that, because of the safety net of Loughbrickland - she had about ten customers with us." Another has completed his counselling degree, and is now on a placement with The Right Key. "He's leading a men's project we initiated, for men to support each other through mental health, through addiction."

The whole world needs to recover

The Right Key was founded as a place for people to heal. Now Sheila wants to address the traumas of Covid-19: "fear, anxiety, stress, those very vulnerable states that people are coming out of lockdown in, the hopelessness and despair. A lot of younger people are looking around, saying, 'Where did my future go, my career? Where did all my job opportunities go?'"

As an organisation, they've made a conscious decision to focus on the positive. "We've got to strengthen what remains and start building again, in what is now the new normal." Sheila's proud that that staff and service users have changed their mindset: "They’re now extremely positive. They've accepted the pandemic, they've transitioned, to now be thinking, 'How can we help others? We’ve come through this, we’re still standing, how can we help?' How can we continue to offer, not just the support that we were offering, but to include the new recovery that’s needed? We've had to rethink recovery and build it into our programmes in a very sensitive way."

To have a recovery centre sitting ready is a dream. We had no idea, when we were preparing [it], that very soon the whole world was going to need recovery. We’ve people ringing us all the time. There’s massive work to do now. We’re thankful we’re equipped and ready.
Sheila Smyth

Find out more about the work of The Right Key, or watch a video of their work.

Sheila Smyth spoke to Zoë Anderson on 23 July 2020. This page was last updated: 20 July 2021.