Facing multiple challenges, a West Wales charity working with children from the ages of 10 to young adults of 30, realised they needed to think differently about tackling the issue of rural isolation head on.

Area 43 runs a drop-in centre and counselling services and has contact with 1,800 vulnerable youngsters a year, many of whom are referred from other services such as education, child and adolescent mental health services, GPs, food banks and youth justice. But given the wide-spread geographical and rural nature of Ceredigion, it was sometimes hard to reach out.

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“We need people to trust us so we can connect with them in their time of need, they need to know we are reliable, and their sensitive information is private and secure, and let’s not forget issues with transport and cash,” said Lisa Head, services manager at Area 43. “We recognised this as a real problem and can be a deterrent to accessing face-to-face services. However, we have this brilliant digital infrastructure and we realised we weren’t using it as well as we could. It has helped us to counter a whole heap of these issues.”

Area 43 Service Manager, Lisa Head, working a laptop.

“It completely changed my thinking and I was surprised at what we could do with technology and how simple some of the solutions were”

Initially the charity looked at how it could connect with people using social media and Lisa attended a workshop with Superfast Business Wales. But it was the one-to-one time spent with Paul Gadd, her business adviser at Superfast Business Wales, that really hit home. “It completely changed my thinking and I was surprised at what we could do with technology and how simple some of the solutions were,” said Lisa.

The charity first tackled its 20-year-old website. “Looking back, I realise how inaccessible it must have been for young people,” said Lisa. “Paul advised us on a number of improvements we could make to the design, content and navigation, all of which we followed, and it’s worked; with more people contacting us through the website. It’s really important that key services work together to offer interventions and help when a young person is in trouble. And this can involve a range of issues like jobs, family, benefits, employment, housing; everything and anything. We are completely young person-led and on the rare occasion that we can’t support, we’ll signpost to someone who can.”

Lisa also made sure the website kept its professional look because of the importance of referrals and funding applications. “As a charity we rely on funding and tendering opportunities and giving the right impression is integral to us being able to continue to support our community.” This activity proved pivotal in the decision to take some of Area 43’s counselling services online; especially as young people need counselling there and then in times of need. The new look helped them win funding to pilot a digital service in Ceredigion. “The Here for You Online counselling service provides immediate access to a service when someone really needs it and it can make such a huge change to their mental health and wellbeing,” said Lisa.

Area 43 Service Manager, Lisa Head in the centre.

The 'Here for You' Online Counselling Service is supported by Cynnal y Cardi (which is administered by Ceredigion County Council) under the LEADER scheme in Ceredigion and has received funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities - Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.'

“People who aren’t able to travel to the drop-in centre in Cardigan or to access our schools-based counselling service in Ceredigion, can now receive counselling services online. Often young people’s needs are very complex, but because they’re so used to spending time on digital platforms, we identified online counselling as an ideal way to help those who can’t come to us for some reason. Thankfully, Ceredigion has had large investments in digital infrastructure, which means we’ve got a reliable connection for online services.”

Because Area 43 is looking to secure funding to continue the new online counselling service, Lisa was aware of the burden increased paperwork could cause already stretched staff. “Paul found us another solution for our day-to-day admin, which was the G-Suite online business software. We see about 300 to 400 young people in our drop-in centre every year and provide counselling services to approximately 1,500. That produces a lot of paperwork, but what we were also finding is that we were struggling to manage our time effectively because we had multiple locations for files and information and staff couldn’t access things at the same time.

“My advice to organisations in a similar situation is to embrace it head on. It is a big change – but totally worth it.”

Following Paul’s advice, we’ve switched from being a mainly paper-based office to be far more cloud-based by implementing G-Suite, which has made us more structured and saved us time. This has allowed us to better coordinate and manage the services we provide to 1,800 people a year.”

In a sector not known for digital innovation, Area 43 is an example of a charity bucking the trend by using digital to find ways to work more efficiently, successfully market itself online, and ultimately provide a better service to end users. Lisa added: “We have now streamlined our systems with email, storage and document access safely and securely managed in one place with the ability to access the software remotely.

“It’s been a steady project to introduce digital and technology to a team that is used to paper and offline methods. My advice to organisations in a similar situation is to embrace it head on. It is a big change – but totally worth it.”

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