“I was brought up believing in education, hard work and serving our community. With this wisdom and understanding of life, I have embraced opportunities, and I have achieved and accomplished much more than I could ever have conceptualised. Now more than ever, in these times of the coronavirus, we need to help and support each other wisely, and work as one community.”
These are the inspiring words of 85-year-old grandmother, Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE.
Eunice, who began life as a poor illegitimate child in Jamaica, came to England in 1957. Through her varied work to support and help local people, she has brought together all ages, races and faiths to work, learn and grow together. She received her Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 for her services to the community.
In her recently released book, ‘Learning and Growing’, Eunice talks about her life and work in Jamaica and England, and the importance of her family teachings. The book also includes lots of photos, which showcase her wonderful smile and many achievements.
She says: “The way a parent trains their child is important. It takes time to teach them how to follow instructions, and to answer their questions in a positive and straightforward manner. Children should always be taught to be humble, to have a good attitude and to work hard to achieve excellent results with deep satisfaction. Almost all children are very intelligent, and with help from their parents, they will be inspired to achieve their goals, and meet any changes, struggles and discoveries on life’s journey.”
Eunice did many jobs at home and in the wider community from a young age, and she believes this helped her gain resilience and understanding.
She currently lives in Stechford, Birmingham, and documents her experiences of living through World War II, of being a single mum, and the struggles, exclusion and racism she received from many when she came to England. These are important recollections for today’s generation to hear about and to learn from. Even when faced with such difficulties in the 1960s, Eunice helped others who couldn’t afford food, and did sewing for others. She notes: “It was my childhood upbringing that gave me the confidence – in spite of the humiliation – to work hard and with a positive approach make a difference.”
Eunice’s abiding message is around educating and supporting each other. She adds: “Putting others first is a respectful way of working together, and is an excellent way of learning basic life skills that benefit us all.” Certainly, in these times of coronavirus, supporting each other and working together are the key.
Eunice has been involved in community action networking in the Handsworth, Aston and Stechford areas of Birmingham since 1960. She has pioneered and spearheaded numerous initiatives, and is a regular attendee at Stetchford Baptist Church.
At Shades of Black, which was created to build cohesion after the 1989 Handsworth riots, children undertook educational visits and learnt new games and artwork. Adults and senior citizens learned about first aid and health and safety, and also took part in flower arranging, sewing and cookery sessions, and found out more about history and mental health.
Whilst a school governor, Eunice suggested and obtained funding for the ‘HELP’ (Help Enables Learning Positively) Uplands Allotment project, where young people discovered a new open-air style of learning, based around growing things. Eunice also developed the Social Inclusion Greenland Nurturing Scheme – SIGNS – and was also the instigator of other gardening-related projects in Stechford. Now she has small groups of children come to her own garden to learn skills. “Small groups are better,” Eunice says. “That way we all get to know each other.”
She has been nicknamed ‘The First Lady of Allotments’, and the police have also credited her with helping reduce crime and anti-social behaviour in the area. Eunice has inspired generations of children to grow and cook their own vegetables and take pride in their community.
But it is not just gardening that has been her focus. Eunice also developed the Best Education Structure Training In Sewing Art programme, which was delivered to parents and pupils in Handsworth and Stechford. Some attendees enhanced their English skills as well through this programme.
Through her work with the Probation Aftercare Service and studies at Birmingham University, Eunice enhanced her skills and gained a qualification in Community and Advice work at the age of 58, which propelled her to help and inspire even more people.
She has always been keen to utilise effective communication, fundraising and publicity skills to maximise the impact of her achievements to help others. Eunice has also been involved in campaigns to clean up a war memorial, and get disabled access at her local railway station.
As a result of her inspirational community work, Eunice has appeared on several television programmes, including Gardeners World, and met many celebrities and dignitaries, including Lenny Henry, Gordon Ramsay, the Queen and Prince Charles. She has also received lots of awards, including the Queen’s Jubilee Award and two Pride of Britain Awards (a decade apart), as well as her MBE. Documents about her work are housed at the Birmingham Museum and in the Central Library.
Summing up, Eunice says: “I grew up in Jamaica. My family served the community and that was instilled in me. I came to England and I served the community right from the beginning, all the way through.” She continues to serve in her local area and encourages others to do so, to help each other and learn from each other.
You can buy Eunice’s book, ‘Learning and Growing’, published by Marcia M Publishing House, on Amazon. There will be a celebratory event to mark the book’s publication later in the year.
Marcia M Spence