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The Isleworth Barge That Helps
"FOUR years ago I was not in a good place. I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't want to leave my room and I was just getting angry at everything. I was hitting out, using drugs and worried about everything."
A calm man in his forties is putting together a pergola, looking nothing like the nervous, aggressive man he is describing.
Here, Lima Curtis visits Cathja, a 38 metre Dutch barge with an art workshop inside, where people with mental health problems can come to help to relax, gain confidence and socialise.
The boat is nestled in the Thames river bed, opposite Isleworth Ait, an island whose Hairy German Snail population scored it nature reserve status.
Just half-an-hour from central London this boat is a centre of calm.
The man I am speaking to is just one of many whose lives have improved since using the facility and the biggest success story of the boat-cum-art centre is project worker Mirinda Roche.
She said: "Four years ago I was coming here with my own problems, and I suppose you could say I am a walking testament. There is something really satisfying about creating your own work and having something to show friends or family and tell them 'I made this'."
The workshop comes complete with a range of tools, machinery and materials giving users the opportunity to make a range of works from small paintings to wind turbines.
The boat is open up five days a week and local artists Martin Cottis and Liz Leyh also attend the sessions to help out, though Mirinda is keen to point out all creative decisions are made by the individual.
She tells me: "This is all about empowerment and giving people back a sense of control in their life, something you lose with mental health problems.
"Users chose what they are making, when they come and for how long. Some people end up coming here for 15 years and others come and go.
"We are not professional health care workers we just help them with their development and creative evolvement."
Carl Kirby-Turner, a carpenter and sailor bought the barge in 1989 when Hounslow Council decided they wanted to replicate the success of a similar project in Ashford.
He spent three years converting the boat into a workshop with help from National lottery and Arts Council.
He said: "I heard about this barge going cheaply and set to work."
The group relies on grants from Hounslow council and its charity shops in Shepperton and Walton on Thames.
They work alongside West Middlesex Hospital in Isleworth, though they don't receive any NHS funding, who recommend the service to those suffering from severe and enduring mental health like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar.
The main thing users notice is a change in confidence.
The first man I spoke to tells me: "I couldn't control my anger before, I had no control over my life whether it what I was doing or what I was saying. Since I took up woodwork I am much calmer."
Another user adds: "I have been coming here for ten years and I like it a lot. I made a cupboard for my Grandma and I am working on a bird table for the hostel I stay at. Coming here keeps me feeling alive, if I don't come I feel I haven't made something of my life so I come most days."
For more information on Cathja or to donate to the charity visit cathja.org.
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