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Maidstone entrepreneur looking for businesses to host 'connect benches' which tackle loneliness

Benches to help tackle loneliness could soon appear around Maidstone.

Mark Allan is looking for places to put his 10 'Connect Benches' across the County Town.

Mock up of Mark's connect bench
Mock up of Mark's connect bench

Each bench will be marked with a plaque reading 'Connect Bench' and a QR code which will take you to a website with options for support services depending on the issues you need help with including poor mental health or redundancy.

Mark plans to renovate old benches himself - sanding, weather proofing and painting them royal blue - but needs land to place the finished benches on.

The 40-year-old said: "I want to grow the Connect Bench and create numerous safe outside spaces for communities to engage and offer a place where people can get information for relevant signposting for an array of different problems.

Mark Allan speak about what Connect Benches are for

"If someone is sitting on it they could be having a bad day and it's really a place where people can interact. I feel outside spaces being created and the opportunity to have a chat with somebody can only be a positive thing."

The first bench was paid for using a bounce back lone after his recruitment business, Job Doctor, was hit by Covid.

In order to fund the maintenance for the bench he plans to allow local businesses to advertise on the website as a way to benefit visitors with deals and fund the project.

According to recent Office for National Statistics data, the loneliest places in the country are the ones with more young, single and unemployed people.

Folkestone and Hythe is the loneliest place in Kent, with 11% of people saying they are often or always lonely - followed closely by Dover at 10.6%.

Canterbury is the least lonely area of the county with 4.6% of people saying they are often or always lonely.

Mark's home borough of Maidstone has 6% of people telling the ONS they are often or always lonely.

Mark hopes the benches can combine technology and in person connections to bring this number down. He added: "There's a couple of reasons why loneliness is a huge problem. One of them is obviously lockdown.

"I also think people in my age bracket are the generation of the internet. When the internet started to come in and when we started to be obsessed with our phones, I think the long term effects of that was loneliness.

Mark Allan's first connect bench before he worked on it (46132487)
Mark Allan's first connect bench before he worked on it (46132487)
Plaque for the connect bench Picture: Mark Allan
Plaque for the connect bench Picture: Mark Allan

"Now we can be too attached to chatting to people generally on Facebook and not having that interaction. We're human beings and I think interaction is huge."

On his own experience, he added: "I've suffered from loneliness when I started my business. It's feeling like nobody cares. When you're existing, getting up every day and trying to find that motivation to try and keep going.

"Loneliness affected my mental health in a negative way. It made me more paranoid, made me feel as if I wasn't worthy. I'd go to the pub and I'd feel like no one wanted to be there. I put the phone down and I'd cry because I wouldn't know when the next time was that my phone was going to ring."

The benches are being dedicated to a friend of Mark's - Alicia Havelock-Dewaele - who sadly died in March this year. A memorial of her will be featured on the website.

Mark said: "Alicia was an incredible young lady. She connected people, she had a very vibrant personality, she always wanted to help the underdog. She didn't like bullies and she would always do whatever she could because she was a naturally caring person. I think she just wanted to be loved. "

Alicia Havelock-Dewaele and Mark Allan (46132498)
Alicia Havelock-Dewaele and Mark Allan (46132498)

He set up a similar bench as a gift to the family of Tommy Thwaites, 25, after he took his life last year following a homophobic attack in a night club.

In the future, it is hoped the website connected with the benches can provide more services - such as organising activities or ways to connect people using the different benches.

After concern was expressed that the benches may be used to target vulnerable people, Mark confirmed plans to set up a page detailing what the bench is for and ways to contact emergency services subtly if needed.

If you want to get in touch with Mark Allan for the project, his email is mark.allan@jobdoctors.org.uk or follow the project on Facebook

To read more about another happy to chat bench project in Medway, click here.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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