Firstsite, Holiday Fun

Sue Hogan, Programme Manager, Learning and Education 

Firstsite is in Colchester and Harwich Arts and Heritage Centre in Tendring, both in Essex. The project began in 2017 and is now delivered every school holiday. 

Holiday Fun is a creative response to Holiday Hunger.  After learning that families were struggling to feed their children during school holidays, and that around 25% of families in Colchester were living in poverty, we met with members of African Families in the UK – one of our community partners who suggested we deliver a project with food at its heart, and so Holiday Fun was born.  The aim was to create a programme that provided a holistic approach to the challenges that the school holidays can bring, that felt like a day out and not a hand-out. 

Holiday Fun runs every weekday during the school holidays and offers free, drop-in creative activities led by artists, free sports and movement sessions and a free, hot and healthy lunch for the family.  The day is organised so families can attend all of the sessions, or they can choose particular elements that suit their needs on that day.  The programme takes place in our award-winning gallery, providing free access to a changing programme of exhibitions. The programme aims to reduce the financial pressures of school holidays, to reduce loneliness and isolation and to allow families to have fun.  As an organisation, Firstsite works closely with the communities that live around us, and Holiday Fun is no exception.  We partner with African Families in the UK, Refugee Action – Colchester, and the Bangladeshi Women’s Association to design content for the programme.  We also work alongside other agencies that provide support to residents, such as Community 360 and Colchester Food Bank.  80% of the families that attend are in receipt of Free School Meals, or require support in the school holidays.  Up to 18% report they are neuro-divergent or have additional needs.  Around 40-45% of those that attend are from a Global Majority heritage background.  We offer 120 meals each day, and often see around 100 families a week.   

Holiday Fun began before the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the issue of Holiday Hunger, and before the cost of living crisis pushed more families into poverty.  The programme is delivered in an art gallery, by an organisation that believes passionately in the impact creativity can have on resilience, problem-solving and positive mental health.  Over the last 6 years Firstsite has changed the way it supports our local communities, always striving to work collaboratively and collegiately and to allow more space for their voices, ideas and projects.  Holiday Fun has been a big part of that, bringing in a new community that now feels a real sense of ownership of the building and what we do, as well as working with other communities to adapt and steer the way the programme itself is delivered. 

Over 80% of families that attend the programme report that it helps them financially during the holidays, and over 90% report that they feel less socially isolated, their mental health is improved and they have a good time.  Many of the families that attend Holiday Fun regularly also use the building outside of school holidays to attend events and classes and to access other facilities we have available.  Some of the parents/carers have joined our volunteer programme and then gone on to find paid employment.  New friendships have been formed that offer support outside of the scope of the programme.  It has created new employment opportunities for around 20 people to support the delivery of the programme as well as providing additional progression routes through the organisation. 

The most important thing we have learned is the benefit of partnership working – there are many groups, charities and organisations that exist to support those in need and that have existing relationships.  These have been key to us promoting the programme and letting the families know that they will be welcomed and well looked after.  It is also useful to know about organisations that can deal with more complex issues that families may experience (housing, debt management) that our programme does not address, so we can refer them to the correct agencies in these instances.  Fun is very important too – listening to what the families want and providing that in a fun way, for free, really adds to the appeal of the programme. 

The project is currently funded until the end of 2022, and we are actively seeking funding for 2023.  We are always looking at ways to improve and expand the programme, whether that be adding additional locations, or offering additional dates.  We have been able to run some additional sessions to offer respite for the parents/carers who attend Holiday Fun.  These take place weekly during term-time and the participants get to spend some time with an artist, learning new skills and working with different materials, before all enjoying a meal together. 

Images courtesy of Firstsite- Aura Films, Frankie Shaftain-Fenner and Jayne Lloyd Photography

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Published 08 July 2022