"If it wasn't for Lancashire Women, my son wouldn't have a mum" says Preston woman of 'life-saving' charity
"I'll start from the beginning," says Michelle, 23, from Preston. "Basically, I came out of hospital from an eating disorder and I was kind of lost. I didn't have any support or anything and my son Jayden, who was two at the time, had to go and stay with his nanny. But then I was introduced to Lancashire Women and it's been a life-saver."
Working across the entire county, Lancashire Women is a life-saving charity set up by women, for women.
With a rich history, the organisation can trace its roots back to 1982, when a group of women connected with the local Labour Party decided to come together and raise awareness of and seek to tackle what they saw as scandalously high infant mortality rates in Blackburn. A movement soon took hold and women were at its heart.
A Well Women's Centre was subsequently opened in 1985 and what is now Lancashire Women - with offices in Accrington, Burnley, Blackpool, and (until recently) Preston, as well as outreach services in Kendal, Carlisle, Whitehaven, Lancaster, Barrow-in-Furness, Chorley, Skelmersdale, and Wilmslow - was officially born.
Today, the charity is dedicated to a society where all women are valued and treated as equals whilst being empowered to transform their lives.
"I walked into their offices frightened and mentally unwell and they changed that," explains Michelle. "They saw something in me and helped change my whole thought pattern and helped me to learn to love myself, even in my darkest hour. That built my confidence up and built my self-esteem up because they believed in me and encouraged me.
"If it weren't for Lancashire Women, I wouldn't be here today and my son, who's four now, wouldn't have a mum," she adds. "They save lives and I just want the whole world to know about them because they're amazing and because there are definitely people in the same situation as me who may be scared to reach out or who might not know about the help out there.
"I just want there to be more awareness because, without Lancashire Women, I wouldn't be the person I am today," continues Michelle, who is keen to pay special tribute to her mentor Mandy Douglass. "They're the most amazing people I've ever met because they go above and beyond for others. I can't believe everything they've done for me.
"They're family to me."
Representing all women - including those who are self-identified or non-binary - the charity provides a non-judgmental setting in which to offer services including mental health and well-being support, employment and skills advice, fiscal guidance through Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)-regulated counselling, and help for those navigating the criminal justice system.
Having found herself at a particularly low ebb, Michelle turned to the charity in her hour of need and was, in return, offered a life-altering embrace.
"Mandy saved me and allowed me to get to the place where I'm now living the life I've always wanted to," says Michelle. "Lancashire Women put me on life-skills and mindset courses and put me in touch with an employability worker as well as providing me with the technology so I could access everything I needed.
"I also had a key worker who I had weekly chats with to help me with debts and money management," she adds of the service, which has around 90 members of staff - 40% of whom are former volunteers or support-users. "I'm happy and enjoying life thanks to Mandy and I just wish I could shout it from the rooftops.
"I've even nominated them for things like Pride of Britain Awards!"
During the pandemic, Lancashire Women has taken its services online whilst also helping many of their service-users access digital provision and online support so they can stay connected in lockdown. But it's still been tough, as the demand for their invaluable help increased at what has been a tumultuous time for countless women.
The help offered by the charity is vital at the best of times, let alone during a once-in-a-century pandemic which has hit the female population particularly severely. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, more than 78% of those who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic were women and two-thirds were between the ages of 18 and 34.
Furthermore, The Prince's Trust estimates that some 60% of young women are fearful for their future due to the pandemic, with more than half saying that finding a job now seems 'impossible'. The charity's 'Young People in Lockdown' report found that 53% of young women aged 16 to 25 say their anxiety levels have increased as a result of the pandemic.
And a rise in anxiety is understandable given that The Office of National Statistics estimates that there are currently 418,000 young women not in education, employment, or training.
"I can remember quite clearly the first time I met Michelle," says Mandy Douglass, Michelle's mentor. "[She] originally came to us following a hospital admission and she was dealing with a number of challenges at that time. She was anxious and her self-esteem was very low [but she] attended sessions consistently, even when she was really struggling.
"She fought to get herself back on her feet and she pushed through the most challenging times," adds Mandy. "During lockdown, Michelle overcame many barriers in order to engage with Lancashire Women’s ‘virtual’ support. She continued to grow in confidence until she reached the point where she wanted to give something back.
"What an amazing journey she has had! Everyone at Lancashire Women is very proud of her and we are so grateful that she has chosen to raise funds to support our life-changing work."
Having experienced first-hand the emotionally cleansing impact of Lancashire Women's support, Michelle - who took part in coffee morning meetings over Zoom during the pandemic - was also able to secure a position as a volunteer at Community Gateway with the help of one of the charity's employability workers.
Embracing the opportunity, Michelle has relished the work and says that the most vital and fulfilling thing the charity did for her was believe in her when her own faith in herself was shaken.
In turn, Michelle has now been inspired and spurred into action by Lancashire Women's life-saving service and is determined to do everything she can to ensure that the charity can continue to make such a profound impact on thousands of other lives across the North West.
"Getting involved with Community Gateway has been amazing," says Michelle, who is due to host a charity car-wash to raise funds for the service on July 22nd. "Being part of it is just so, so brilliant. It makes me feel important and needed, which has helped my confidence no end. It's felt like a massive achievement.
"To know you're helping people is surreal and amazing at the same time, and I'm motivated to do more knowing that there are people out there now who are struggling," explains Michelle, who also credits the late Sir Tom Moore who raised almost £39m for the NHS with his charity walks, for inspiring her. "That's where the motivation for the fundraiser came from.
"I saw Sir Tom Moore's '100 things to do to raise money' on social media and decided on a carwash," she says. "Sir Tom was such a big inspiration to a lot of people during lockdown with his own fundraising efforts."
In her own words, Michelle says that Lancashire Women's help has made her feel like 'a new person' and 'the version of herself' she always wanted to be. And that kind of testimony will be music to the ears of Adele Helm, the charity's Business Development Officer.
"It's a charity set up by women for women," says Adele of Lancashire Women. "We're here to support women in achieving what they want whilst also being treated and valued as equals, so there isn't a lot we don't do. It's holistic support that puts the woman at the centre of things.
"If a woman can be brave enough to engage, it can be life-changing and often life-saving; I know that first-hand," adds Adele. "We want to see that positive impact in Lancashire and I'm so passionate about this organisation [because] statistically, women are 81% more likely than men to suffer an anxiety attack and 22% more likely to feel down, depressed, or hopeless.
"Those stats speak for themselves."
When asked what she would say to someone considering reaching out to Lancashire Women, Michelle is unequivocal.
"Go for it," she says. "It's the best thing which can happen to you and it'll open up a new world. I go out now and I'm confident whereas before I was a shadow in the corner. Now I'm being seen and heard and that's a great feeling.
"Reach out. It'll change your life."
To help or volunteer with Lancashire Women, visit https://lancashirewomen.org/how-you-can-help