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One range of lathe-turned bowls wouldn’t look out of place in the slightest in a London art gallery or New York studio, let alone a “recovery-based support organisation”.

Crafting the exceptional: ThriveResponse

What makes a product ‘exceptional’? At OX we’re continually bombarded by companies hoping to sell their latest ‘luxury’ wares, but very few offer anything truly unique or remarkable


"Many people here have survived things that I couldn’t survive."

If you were in the market for a wooden item to decorate your home, what would make it exceptional? The design, the sourcing of the wood, the craftsmanship, or the people who made it?

 

“A place like this is really rare,” Rick Mower says as he shows me round ThriveResponse’s workshop in Blackbird Leys. “Our customers buy our products because they’re beautiful.”

I’ve heard variations on those sentences more times than I can count, but ThriveResponse isn’t your run of the mill wood workshop. It was set up as a partnership between Thrive and the mental health charity Response and everyone who works for the business has been through or are experiencing some sort of disadvantage – whether related to learning or physical disability, mental illness or recovery from substance misuse – the ethos is one of focusing on the future, overcoming obstacles and creating genuinely special products.

“We’ve got some wood in at the moment from the Marquess of Bath’s estate, as well as from other local estates, and we’re looking at buying some gorgeous teak reclaimed from a steamer sunk in World War One. Everything we do tells a story and we’re always on the lookout for new supplies,” Rick explains. Although his team are clearly committed to helping those with various physical and mental setbacks, in Rick’s own words, Thrive don’t “trade on sympathy or the staff’s life history. We’re about the right now and the future.”

It’s not a common attitude, but after wrapping your head around the reasoning and feeling the atmosphere for yourself, it’s difficult not to wonder why. I let Rick explain in greater detail:

“Most support agencies are utterly amazing but are so hard up for money and have so many clients that they are hugely pressed for support time. One of the things that we do here is to stop talking about the person’s problems, because what happens with someone who has been ‘in the system’ for a while is that they get labelled – ‘you’re an ex-heroin addict’, ‘you’ve had schizophrenic episodes’, ‘you’re learning disabled’, and people also tend to label themselves that way because that’s how others have communicated to them all their life. At some point in somebody’s journey, I don’t always think it’s necessarily helpful if you meet a person and introduce yourself as a support worker for substance misuse or similar, because that conversation is already based on their existing issues and where they are, rather than where they can go. Working closely with support workers we’ve got the space here to change that conversation. Here it’s ‘at 8am, you are part of Thrive, you’re part of our culture and part of our little society, and we’re going to make the best possible things we can for the best clients we can’.”

Some pieces in particular are beyond what you’d see in most workshops, in both design and execution. In particular, one range of lathe-turned bowls wouldn’t look out of place in the slightest in a London art gallery or New York studio, let alone a “recovery-based support organisation”.

ThriveResponse also produce an extensive range of garden furniture, from benches to picnic tables, in 14 different colours – the customer can choose the style, the wood, the colour, the finish and the delivery time. Next up is a range of chopping and charcuterie boards, as well as iPad and tablet holders made out of reclaimed hardwood.

As if it wasn’t evident already, Rick is quick to emphasize that Thrive “is not about being just a charity that makes the odd wood product.” His attitude to how people should be helped extends further:

“There’s a real truth that people go through adversity, and when they have overcome that disadvantage, their resilience and their tenacity is remarkable. Many people here have survived things that I couldn’t survive. The fact that someone may have spent their lives with a mental illness, or been addicted to drugs, and then come away from that downward spiral, takes more cojones than the average person has got. We tap into that, and rather than say ‘why don’t you be normal like normal people and aspire to stack a shelf in Sainsbury’s’, we say ‘let’s be exceptional – how good can you be?’”

John McLaughlin, the CEO of Response whose partnership, focus and support powers ThriveResponse, echoes Rick’s sentiments: “A lot of people who suffer with disadvantages of different sorts become isolated, and this may be because they’re frightened, because they haven’t got the social skills or because they have difficulty communicating. It’s easy to think ‘well, why don’t you get up and stop watching telly all day?’ but that’s actually a very safe and non-threatening place to be. You’ve got to give people a place where they feel safe but also where they feel productive. To be presented with an option like ThriveResponse can make people think ‘well maybe I could do that’. One of our staff might be able to walk into a shop with their girlfriend or their mum and say ‘I made that’. We’re quite militant, actually, about proving people wrong. Rather than me, a middle-class, liberal person, saying ‘this person has a lot of value, you should give them a chance’, we do so by showing.

“We’re also really keen to engage people who feel like they want to give something back,” John adds. “We’d love to get more volunteers in who have some experience of wood work, trades or production in particular. There’s a whole host of people in our communities, many of them retired, who by volunteering with us could help make a real difference to lives. We’d welcome them with open arms.”

And it’s not just the small-batch, designer products that are doing well for ThriveResponse, either. Rick has his eye firmly on the future:

“We’ve just won a substantial contract to produce a huge amount of BBC Springwatch branded animal habitats which will be sold in retailers across the UK. We know that there’s an opportunity for us to do more of that kind of manufacturing and white-label wooden goods for other brands too. We’d love to talk to some of the multiples and distributers about all kinds of highvolume wooden products, like chopping boards for example. The BBC products prove that we can compete in that market and produce products at the same price and quality as companies that aren’t local and don’t generate any positive social impact. That makes it a really compelling offer to other large buyers, especially organisations keen to promote Social Corporate Sustainability through their buying and supplier chains.

“We’re also really keen to expand our range of leisure interiors – we’re in talks with a couple of local pubs and restaurants about cool furniture and new interior refits. We’re also making office and reception desks – again using reclaimed wood and with social impact built-in.”

Given ThriveResponse’s success so far, we can only hope that this straightforward attitude is picked up on by others. To find out more contact rick@thriveoxford.co.uk or keep up to speed at thriveoxford.co.uk and on Twitter.

 

- Jack Rayner

 

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