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In conversation with Fiona McKenzie

By, Frank Gormanley

Founded in 2006, Centrestage is a multi award-winning Ayrshire charity and back in October, Fiona McKenzie, Centrestage CEO won ‘Unsung Hero’ at the ‘West FM Cream of Ayrshire’ Awards in Kilmarnock. The prestigious ceremony celebrates and recognises individuals and companies across Ayrshire that contribute and make a positive impact within their communities and this is exactly what Centrestage champions each day across their organisation.

Centrestage believes that anyone, regardless of age background or experience, can gain life changing benefits through the active participation in the arts. Their vision is “building energetic and inclusive communities with the arts at the heart”. This is currently delivered across seven sites and thirteen communities throughout Ayrshire and their #oneteam welcome and support over 2500 participants each week. 

As we fast approach the season of goodwill and celebrate all things Christmas, Ayrshire Magazine caught up with Fiona McKenzie, Centrestage CEO to find out more about what’s planned for the charity this Christmas, to talk about their Dignified Food Provision programme and to find out what ‘Giving’ means to the leader of one of Ayrshire’s fastest growing charities…

What’s planned this Christmas at Centrestage, Fiona?
Christmas is always my favourite time of year and, each year, we try to provide the most special experience throughout the season for everyone who is part of our community. Christmas, more than any other time, emphasises the importance of spending time with family and friends and our message this year across Centrestage is simply ‘Together this Christmas’. 

One of the saddest things we encounter on a daily basis is that loneliness and isolation across Ayrshire is growing at an unprecedented rate and we feel it’s vital to create as many opportunities as possible to bring people together, not just at Christmas, but all year round. However, at Christmas, it’s even more important to make that extra effort to reach out.  We have so many fun, food and folk activities planned for the season, and no matter whether it’s just to drop in for some company or to enjoy one of our productions or festive special events, we’d love to see you.  

Our ‘Together this Christmas’ guide will be launched mid-November and everything from the latest “Aspire” pantomime to our “Very Centrestage Christmas” will be there to enjoy.

Tell us more about your Dignified Food Provision and what it does to help people across Ayrshire?
We developed our Dignified Food Provision programme as a response to reducing food insecurity in any area where we were delivering our activities. When we discovered that so much high quality surplus food is sent to landfill on a daily basis, when so many people across Ayrshire are living in hunger and reliant on food banks, we developed a model where we uplift or have delivered to our kitchens in Dundonald, over 200 tonnes of food annually, from our many suppliers and supporters, from which really lovely nutritious meals are created, packaged and distributed to anyone who requires support, right in the heart of their community. There is no condition to receiving the food and people can take what they need and pay what they can, allowing us to reinvest their donations to further support activities in their areas.

Over 4000 portions of food are currently being produced weekly by our team of chefs and delivered across our “On the Road”, “Catalyst”, “Connect” and “Eat And Train” activities and, if that means that fewer children, families and individuals are dealing with hunger on a daily basis, we will work even harder to find new partners and suppliers who can help us eradicate the need for food banks in Scotland. 

We have an incredibly busy programme of food deliveries and festive activities scheduled to make sure that anyone needing that extra support is able to access it across the Christmas period and if there is anyone reading this who feels they may have wider contacts or suppliers who can help us maximise the impact of our food provision, we would be grateful to hear from them. 

Our ‘On the Road’ timetable is on our Centrestage website and I am always delighted to hear from anyone who would like to find out more, or who can help in any way.

We see ‘Pay It Forward’ mentioned at Centrestage often Fiona. What does this mean?
Centrestage started as a place for anyone, regardless of age, background or ability, to come together to enjoy being part of a community built around the arts. However, in our 12 years, we have learned that there are far too many people excluded from participation in the arts or who would never feel that the arts could make a difference to their lives. 

To allow as many people to be able to be part of all we do, many activities and performance are offered on a #payitforward basis, where folks pay what they can to participate. Funds raised in this way go straight back into supporting more activities and supports across our communities.

Could you share a story about someone Centrestage has supported through one of your projects and how it has helped them?
So many people have made us incredibly proud over the years and it has been a privilege to be a step on their journey. I’m very proud of everyone on our #oneteam who works so hard to make a difference to our folks every day.

One example would be John Andrew, who discovered his exceptional talent for art whilst participating in our Catalyst project. Supported by his mentor, local artist Harry Sutton, and the Catalyst Team, John developed his talent and is now a commissioned artist and is studying art at Ayrshire College, working hard every day to use his skills and talents to create a new future.

Congratulations on the Kilmarnock Academy asset transfer, the most significant in Scotland to date – Where is Centrestage with the project?
Most importantly, for us to be part of the future of this iconic historic site, which holds so much emotional attachment for so many across the community, is a real privilege. So many people have worked for so long to make this happen and it has been a true team effort, with key support and advice coming from East Ayrshire, the Scottish Government, The Hunter Foundation and our design team. We currently operate across 7 Ayrshire sites, creating significant logistical challenges across the organisation, so bringing everything we do onto a single location will allow growth across all of our activities, whilst allowing greatly increased opportunities to collaborate with new and existing local and regional organisations and partners. 

We hope that the Community Village, as it is called, becomes the beating heart of the town, with people visiting for whatever reason they need to be there; whether that be for a show, or a meal; for help with benefits or to sing in a choir; to learn how to cook or  to paint; ultimately, it is a place, just as Centrestage is now, where all are welcome, and no-one needs to know why you are there. You’re just part of the community. 

The main challenges are around the accessibility of the site and, now that these issues are resolved, we hope that work on the site will begin early 2019. We hope that everyone will be as excited as we are to see the transformation that lies ahead. Kilmarnock and Ayrshire both have an incredible past. We believe that by working together in a different way with other people and organisations who share our ethos and values, we can help create an even better future.

With this being our ‘Giving’ issue Fiona, we must ask, what does ‘Giving’ mean to you? 
For me, it’s always about giving people a chance; that wee bit of hope that the best days are still to come. In our Centrestage journey, we have been given that same time and advice from the most unlikely and unexpected people and it has helped us immeasurably. 

Sir Tom Hunter talks about giving “a hand up, not a hand out” and I think that’s one of the most important things any of us can give and receive. None of us have all the answers. None of us can make things happen alone. We need people to believe in us and to help us make the difference. 

Our Centrestage anthem, that is sung across every class and community is “Lean on Me” and the lyrics really sum up my philosophy.

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong. I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

 

We never know when we are going to need that helping hand and, if we have been lucky enough to have the support of family and friends, as a community, we need to put that helping hand out for those who, for whatever reason, have not been so fortunate.

What are your own plans for Christmas, Fiona?
I love the whole season and start researching new Christmas music in August, much to the horror of the team, so I can’t wait to get started on the music rehearsals I get to lead. Every season at Centrestage is always really busy but Christmas is always the happiest one. I’m personally really excited for this year’s Aspire pantomime which has been a highlight for the past 4 years now and it wouldn’t be Christmas without our Gospel Choir making it “A Christmas to Remember”! 

I’m really fortunate to work with many of my family every day but having everyone together on Christmas Day is the definitely the best day of the year. It’s always pretty chaotic but why should Christmas be any different from the other 364 days!

I’d also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone at the Ayrshire Magazine, on behalf of all of us at Centrestage, a very Merry Christmas and Happy 2019. I really hope to welcome you to Centrestage soon.

To find out more about Centrestage visit their website centrestagemt.org.uk or you’ll find plenty of updates on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram social media accounts.