When Claire Boulton and partner Matt moved to the picturesque south Gloucestershire village of Wickwar in 2009, the mum-of-one freely admits that she struggled to settle in.
Having a child, Charlie, with ADHD and being new to what she assumed was a close-knit village community, Claire felt like an outsider and at times would purposely isolate herself from her neighbours.
“I did struggle at first because there’s the assumption that village communities can made up of cliques and because of that and the difficulties I was having as a parent, I hid myself away in the back room,” the 41-year-old explains.
“But it’s only when you are brave and talk to people, that you realise you’re not the only one that actually felt like an outsider to start with. Not everybody living here in Wickwar is born and bred, and that actually it is all a friendly, welcoming community.”
However just as Claire had turned a corner in terms of making inroads with her neighbours, she suffered a fresh setback after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia – a long-term condition that causes pain and fatigue all over the body. Having worked for most of her life, including two spells as a hostel manager and sheltered scheme manager through South Gloucestershire Council, Claire was determined to beat the condition and carry on as normal.
She said: “I forced myself to get a full-time job as a customer service representative at my local cinema but over a 10-month period from April 2015 to June 2016 I went from doing 35 to 40 hours-a-week to just four hours-a-week as my body gradually shut down.
“I absolutely loved working with members of the public in such a front-facing role and I used to smile through the pain. But then after every shift I was getting back into my car and just crying my eyes out behind the steering wheel because of the pain.
“Eventually I had to admit defeat but a few people from the community rallied around to take me for coffee, and on little trips out, just things to keep me occupied and fill the void of me not being able to work.”
And just to demonstrate how far Claire has come, she helped organise the recent school village fair including the collection of raffle prizes and the manning of a bouncy castle for the children to enjoy.
Claire went on: “That was a big moment for me because it was my first big community outing using my mobility scooter and all sorts of bad thoughts had gone through my head before. It was me putting myself into my community and saying ‘hey, look at me now’. But do you know what, nobody treated me any differently or even mentioned the mobility scooter and I realised it was all in my head.”
Her own experiences have shaped how she acts today, and she is now a member of the resident involvement programme helping Bromford shape its services for other customers.
“There are still a lot of stigmas around housing association properties and people often still come to mine and go ‘this is a HA property?’ because they can’t get over how nice it is or how stunning the views are of the rolling fields that back on to my garden.
“Merlin and now Bromford have really been there for me over the last five years as my health has deteriorated. As life changes, you worry that your home will no longer be the right one but actually they’ve helped make adaptations to my property like handrails and different steps out into the back garden. It has made me realise that as life changes for you, your home can change with you.
“And as someone who used to work in housing, I’m really excited about Bromford’s neighbourhood coaching approach being rolled out across my area. I know how powerful that mentality can be inside a housing scheme and to see that widened out across all communities is really exciting.”
Claire says that perhaps her biggest lesson is the danger of relying on assumptions.
“If I spot a new face in the community nowadays I always make a point of saying hello,” Claire adds.