Andy Patton has been a member of the Eden Project Communities network, which is supported by the National Lottery, since 2017. He is a pillar of his community of Sion Mills, Co. Tyrone, and is the person that everyone comes to when they have any community issues that need to be resolved.
After arson attacks in the old Herdman’s Mill, which gave Sion Mills its name, Andy brought the community together for a Big Lunch to re-grow trust.
Celebration of community
Sion Mills held a Big Lunch as a positive celebration of community in the wake of arson attacks. Andy said the arson attacks had a terrible effect on the older people in the community.
Andy said: 'The Big Lunch was a way to gel our community after arson attacks that destroyed our old mill. The attacks really lowered community spirit in Sion Mills, and The Big Lunch was about raising it up. I’ve found that something as simple as setting aside a day to connect over lunch makes our community more robust. This is us standing up against the negative impact of some misguided people.'
In the true spirit of the Big Lunch, everyone from Sion Mills was invited and even if the arsonist had come along, they would have been made very welcome.
'The only way we are going to defeat something like that is to engage those people,' said Andy. 'You don’t isolate people, you engage them. You try and change their minds by witnessing social interaction, people getting along and working together and being supportive of one another. I have seen that work before with young people who seem hell-bent on destruction. I have made it a personal crusade to try and engage those young people.'
'The repeated attacks made them scared. It just brought a feeling of fear into the air in Sion Mills. There is a lot of loneliness among the older people in Sion Mills and when they are lonely they feel vulnerable. I phoned around and asked if they want to be collected from the town or the rural areas around Sion Mills and brought to the Big Lunch and they all wanted to be part of it.'
Andy planned the Big Lunch mostly for older people as they had the most in need of social interaction, happiness and solidarity at that time.
Seeing happy faces again
Andy said 'There are a lot of happy faces at the Big Lunch. Everyone wanted to contribute and they all brought one small thing to share, so there was a real feeling of collaboration - there was a lot of talk beforehand about what everyone else was bringing so that there was a variety of food and activities.'
Andy was unsure how many people were going to turn up, and whether it would be a diverse mix, but he was delighted in the end with the turnout.
'It’s more about the quality of interaction rather than the number of people that turn up. If two people had turned up today I would have been happy. If 20 had turned up I would have been more than happy. With the turn out we got, I was out of my tree! It makes me feel very good about my village.'