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Groups get so much out of being here.. when I see members happy I know we're doing well - MARK SMYTH; ART OF THE MATTER.

Byline: AMANDA POOLE

IN the build-up to the Pride of Northern Ireland Awards at Stormont on December 3 the Daily Mirror has been uncovering some amazing community work.

Today we speak to a community group where art takes centre stage.

FOR the last 20 years Art Ability has helped more than 20,000 people lead a more rewarding life through art.

The North Belfast centre runs creative projects for adults and children with and without disabilities in an effort to promote inclusion.

The charity's manager Richard Long said the group supports people and builds friendship and confidence through art.

He added: "The aim of Art Ability is to promote integration. We offer arts projects to help people work together and break down barriers.

"We are here for everyone, regardless of what art ability they have. Most members are referred by their doctor or social services.

"We run a great project for adults with mental health problems - to get them out of the house and be creative.

"People are getting the chance to interact, enjoy themselves and build their own confidence."

In March the centre was a victim of budget cuts which saw 70% of its funding withdrawn and six staff lose their jobs.

Richard added: "It's been very tough, so we welcome any donations."

Trade union organiser and Siptu adviser Teri Cregan has been offering Art Ability support as it struggles to cope with its drastically-reduced budget.

She added: "We have a big campaign running against cuts to the community sector.

"I've been offering Art Ability assistance, because I am a disability champion and the work done here is vital.

"The decision to cut the funding to this organisation is horrendous, because the projects here are so important."

Gary Linton has volunteered at Art Ability for the last two years and works on the adult art and craft group. He said: "It's like a family.

"We joke together and have fun. We treat everyone as an individual and they each get something different from here.

"I enjoy seeing people progress. People are shy to start and then I get to see them gradually improve and benefit from being here."

Mark Smyth is a former member of Art Ability but is now the centre co-ordinator.

When he first arrived at the centre he was trying to cope with a severe mental disorder.

He said: "Richard asked me to cover the group one day and I've been doing it ever since. It's been a lifeline for me.

"I still have my problems, but organising events for the group really gives me a sense of purpose and makes me feel good."

Mark is in no doubt that confidence grows through art.

He added: "With mental illness it's very hard to get your confidence back and feel good about what you do. Many of our members are progressing really well, which is great.

"But it really bothers me that we don't have the funding to do more creative projects.

"The groups get so much out of being here. When I see members leaving happy, I know we are doing something well."

Mark is setting up People Inspired Through Art at the moment and hopes that down the line it will be set up as a charity.

The team at Art Ability said they think the Pride of Northern Ireland youth achievers awards are an excellent idea.

Mark said: "It's lovely to see young people being recognised for their achievements.

"We are looking forward to attending the awards ceremony at Stormont."

To receive more information about Art Ability NI Ltd call 028 9024 4240 or email artabilityni@btconnect.com.

GET INVOLVEDTHE 2011 Pride of Northern Ireland Awards will take the message of pride in our young people directly to the heart of local communities.

We strive to honour those people who are rarely recognised or rewarded for their courage, drive and determination.

Every year the Daily Mirror asks groups and individuals to nominate local people aged 15 -17 who have been truly inspirational in their communities, groups, schools and homes, detailing their fantastic achievements under some of the most challenging circumstances.

Please check out www.facebook.com/PrideOf-NorthernIrelandAwards for more information.

CAPTION(S):

FRAME GAME J Members of Art Ability in North Belfast show off their work DAY TRIPPERS J Parents and kids on model train PICTURE THIS n Belfast Mayor Niall O Donnghaile
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 7, 2011
Words:729
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