OPINION: Derry is the place to be

I have a recurring dream. In this dream, I’m leaving Derry for good. I always wake up relieved that it’s just a dream.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 12:20 pm

I have a recurring dream. In this dream, I’m leaving Derry for good. I always wake up relieved that it’s just a dream.

I’m relieved because I’ve left Derry three times already. Initially, as an 18-year old who couldn’t wait to leave the Derry of 1994 and move to Edinburgh to study, and then onto Manchester to start my career.

Coming back temporarily eight years later, I left again. This time to the opposite side of the world to backpack across Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia for six months.

Leeann Monk and Jennifer Neff.

I arrived back in time for the Derry Christmas scene and after the sparkle wore off, I realised I had to make a go of it and focus on the next phase of my life. How would life in Derry compare from 1994 to 2002?

I volunteered at the Waterside Credit Union and joined the board. I joined Women in Enterprise and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. I quickly learned that it was a caring, creative and a community-focused place so I set up a consultancy firm to work with voluntary, community, faith-based and social enterprises around empowering communities towards better health and wellbeing.

I got to see the inner workings of all the key organisations that contributed to the social and economic development of the region. So many great leaders, initiatives and aspirations but, at the same time, so much inequality, silo working and power struggles.

I then met Leeann Monk in 2013, and we shared our frustrations, starting sentences with ‘Imagine if...’. Our common frustrations were mainly around the fact that there was so much happening for communities in Derry, yet the people who could benefit, didn’t seem to know much about it. Connections were broken, communication and collaboration models were unlinked. We could clearly see the community programmes and services that were running because we both worked in this space, but many others, particularly those who required social support the most, were blind to what was there for them, on their own front door step. We were both equally inspired and motivated by the whole buzz and air of optimism around the City of Culture and felt that we could turn our frustrations and motivation into something worthwhile.

We decided to take action so that people could be more supported and empowered to engage in activities, services and programmes in their own communities that would give them the best chance at life.

This was known as social prescribing. Despite not having software backgrounds, we decided to develop a platform to enable and evidence the impact of social prescribing and created Elemental Software.

Not long in and it was time to leave Derry again. My husband got an opportunity to work in the Middle East, so with two kids in tow and eight suitcases, we said farewell to Derry!

Playing my part in the Middle East, I joined the Dubai Women Chamber of Commerce and introduced myself to all the key people in health in the Dubai Government. I told them all about Derry, about social prescribing and about Elemental Software. I even got to demo Elemental Software to the Prince of Dubai.

I flew back to London every month and secured contracts and spent summers in Derry working on Elemental with Leeann. It became clear a decision was looming as Elemental was on the up, so it was time to decide; Derry or Dubai?

That was three years ago and despite everything that’s happening locally, regionally and internationally there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Elemental is now the largest social prescribing software provider in the world. Organisations in health, housing, VCSE, prison care, education, employability, social care and local government are now using our platform to create better lives and reduce health inequalities for almost 100,000 people around the UK and Ireland. We’ve also made it possible for those who need social support, to refer themselves into social prescribing programmes online, giving power back to the people and motivating them to take control over their wellbeing.

So listen out for the good stuff that’s happening locally- there’s plenty of it. Buy local, it recognises and rewards the risk-takers and tell everyone that Derry is the place to be.

We’ve known it for years, it’s time everyone else does too.

Jennifer Neff is CEO of Elemental Software