“It’s not just a choir, it’s like a family. It really lifts you,” says local resident and community activist, Jean Crossby about St Helier Voices. “I suffer from asthma. Lots of people who come along have health issues, we’ve done a few gigs now and it’s just been amazing.”
Sutton’s St Helier Voices choir launched in September 2022, bringing people together in the wake of the pandemic. The choir, on the St Helier estate, Carshalton, was dreamt up by residents, including Jean, along with Hayley Humphreys, pioneer evangelist from local Bishop Andrewes’ Church, with some funding from NHS South West London.
A year on, the choir is going strong with up to 18 regular members who sang at a special concert to thank the NHS for the grant that kickstarted their journey.
As Hayley explains, the choir has brought a range of health and social benefits. “We have breathing exercises at the beginning of choir. Everyone has talked about improvements in their breathing. But more than that it’s been about boosting mental health. People who have suffered bereavement, who’ve been at a loose end, have found new friends by coming here.”
I feel like the words of these songs are pretty pertinent to the people who come every week.”
The focus is on popular songs with a positive message – from I’m a Believer to Lean on Me. The singers, whose ages range from 20 to 80, have grown in confidence with support from leader and professional musician Andrew Garrido.
Says Hayley, “I feel like the words of these songs are pretty pertinent to the people who come every week. Sometimes they say to me, ‘I didn’t know if fancied it today but I’m so glad I came.’ There are so many comments like that.”
Of the concert, Hayley says: “We wanted to celebrate where we’d come in a year. We sounded a bit like we were at a football match when Andrew first started with us. Now we sound much better and we wanted to say thank you to the NHS. We wanted to invite our friends and family to show them the journey we’ve been on.”
As with areas across the UK, the St Helier estate has seen people struggle with the rising cost of living. It also has a large elderly population. Rates of long-term conditions such as diabetes and respiratory problems are high, as are mental health issues. Since the pandemic, some people have found it hard to connect with their community.
We wanted to invite our friends and family to show them the journey we’ve been on.”
The estate can be difficult to reach with better health messages, according to Jean. “Unless you really know the community, it’s hard to make inroads. No one likes to be told what to do. We like to make our own minds up.”
The choir is one of number of positive initiatives that are bringing change. It grew out of Wednesday drop-in sessions at Bishop Andrewes church, which have been running for a while.
The sessions have reached local people with health support in a way that traditional methods may have failed. GPs have attended to talk to people about the issues that matter to them, from menopause to vaccination. Social prescribing link workers also get people talking, while signposting to services including the mental health crisis café, debt and housing advice.
In addition, more activities are added all the time. Says Hayley, “We’ve got an art group and we do Zumba for £3 a session thanks to a grant from Sport England.”
She explained how the art came about. “I went away on a retreat where I did some art and I realised it was really therapeutic.” After a chance meeting with a local art therapist, Hayley successfully applied to Sutton Council for grant funding.
“I went to school on the estate but we didn’t bother with art, we thought it was something that happens in more affluent areas. So, it’s just been a joy to see people enjoying art, just creating beautiful things and escaping for a couple of hours. That has been very special.” While the sessions with the art therapist are time-limited, it is hoped the group can continue to meet, sharing craft skills such as knitting or origami.
What people say about the choir:
“I think I have an awful voice. I don’t like it. If I recorded and released an album I definitely wouldn’t buy it. … but I really don’t mind singing with such a great bunch of folks. Everyone’s voice is different, and when you get a lot of people singing together, it really produces something very special. ” Peter
“Meeting new people, who also enjoy singing, is a pleasure and everyone is so kind and friendly. Not only has it been good for my emotional wellbeing, it is also great exercise for my lungs. Belonging to the choir makes me feel happy and uplifted and I don’t want the evening to end.” Rosemary
Read more about what’s happening on the St Helier estate on the parish website.