Cowplain woman who needed emergency brain surgery helping others get their spark back

Nine and a half years ago Becki was forced to relearn much of what she had already known, following emergency brain surgery which prevented her from losing her sight completely.

By Elsa Waterfield
Tuesday, 2nd August 2022, 3:01 pm

Today, Rebecca or ‘Becki’ Simmons is founder of SPARK Community Space – a local charity working to reach those overlooked by society – soon to be opening its ‘forever home’ on Fratton Way, in September.

In 2013, then Cowplain resident Becki Simmons was rushed into emergency brain surgery after years of suffering with excruciating headaches, turning her life upside down and forcing her to relearn everyday skills.

‘I could never go back to work again, I woke up not being able to take stress or pressure,’ says Becki.

Becki Simmons (49) from Southsea, founder of Spark Community Space which she set up in October 2020. Picture: Sarah Standing (290121-1009)

‘I remember answering the telephone on my first day back at work and I just cried like a baby and that’s when I realised ‘you’re still Becki, but you’re different.’

For Becki, it was a long road to recovery – one which she is still facing today.

‘I stayed at home, didn't really go out much, I couldn't walk, I couldn't drive,’ she says.

Becki Simmons of Spark Community outside Sherlocks Bar Southsea on 2nd June 2021 Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘After a year of staying at home, my friend – who runs another charity in Havant called Stella’s Voice – said come and volunteer with us.’

‘I said I can't, I'm quite happy at home because I'm not different at home, I'm safe, no one sees my disability.’

After some persuasion, Becki had her first day back at work after surgery and just like that – she was sparked back into life.

‘He said come on Becki, you can do it.

‘It was with his encouragement that I went and volunteered and within four hours, the spark came back into me,’ adds Becki.

Relieved to have people look past her diagnosis and see her as ‘just Becki,’ she soon wanted to do just that for others who have ever felt cast out or struggled to fit into society.

‘I was still different, but there was that joy of being Becki with worth, not a diagnosis, or Becki with a brain injury – just Becki.’

‘That’s how the idea of Spark started, somebody else took my hand and helped me, so I wanted to be that help for others.’

Spark acts as a welcoming space to people within the community who feel they have lost their way in life or have experienced something life changing and want to feel like themselves again.

‘If people have been diagnosed with cancer, dementia, redundancy, or are just trying to figure out where their new life is – there is this space that they can just come and breathe and figure out life over a cup of tea and a bit of cake,’ says Becki.

‘It's so important that you're not defined by your diagnosis, you might have that diagnosis but you're still a person first.’

Becki and her team of volunteers will hold peoples’ hands and, when necessary, signpost them to relevant services within the city which can help them further.

‘I thought when we started the charity that I'd probably impact a few people’s lives a week, but it’s gone completely bonkers and it’s helping so many people.’

‘It’s gone way bigger than I ever thought it would,’ adds Becki.

Now, the charity will make its new home inside the Pompey Centre in Fratton for the foreseeable future.

‘We’re prescribed by nine doctors surgeries in the city as a safe place for people who have anxiety or feel socially isolated.

‘The You Trust, Solent Mind, the Social Prescribing programme, the Positive Mind Group, Portsmouth Carers – they’re all pointing people to our space,’ she adds.

Becki is turning the old Portsmouth Football Club shop into a café and charity shop, from which she will run the Spark on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays as well as being open to other non-profit community groups and charities to hire on the days it is closed.

‘Other community groups can use it as their platform to build a foundation in the city, maybe they can’t afford to run at the moment or they don’t have their own premises.

‘Well come and use Spark! As long as their ethos is the same as ours – no discriminations and no barriers – then we’re happy for them to use our space,’ adds Becki.

Becki also welcomes the help of tradespeople and companies to donate materials and items to help make the space a home.

‘The most amazing thing is we are not funded.’

‘All these other people are funded and have paid staff who come in and help and that’s great but we don't have any paid staff, everyone is voluntary.

In the aftermath of Covid, Spark has seen an even bigger demand for Becki’s services having left the city awash with socially isolated and excluded people who feel they ‘don’t belong’ anywhere, says Becki.

‘It’s helping people take their first steps out of their home. We had somebody who's been in work for 37 years, had Covid three times and had a complete breakdown.

‘He came in and said: ‘If it wasn’t for this place Becki I wouldn't be alive. You've given me hope, you've given me time to breathe and realise that I still have purpose.’

Becki, who moved to Southsea five years ago to be closer to her circle of support and to be able to get around easier now she’s unable to drive, held temporary coffee mornings at Sherlock’s Bar until she found a suitable location and adequate funding.

‘We just want to spark people back into life so that they go and sparkle all over the city.’

‘We’re just the platform for them to feel confident,’ she says.

As a result of the ‘community cuddle’ that Becki and her team have created, while Spark’s meetings take a short hiatus due to the ongoing works to get their new space up and running – members of the group are still meeting at Portsmouth Central Library every Tuesday and Wednesday.

‘Spark isn't to have people join the team and stay with us for years, we want them to come and join our team, and get so much confidence that they go off and find jobs and realise their worth.’

‘We just want people to excel,’ adds Becki.

To give back, organisations in the city are chipping in to help the charity get on its feet, with support from Shaping Portsmouth, Love Southsea, GRP Solutions, KSM Telecoms and many more.

‘Already we’ve seen so many amazing people not only give up their time but offer their services to help Spark get up and running,’ says Becki.

‘People just keep on giving and it’s amazing to see how much people are willing to help.’

Not only has Spark helped countless lives within the city, Becki says she owes her own progress to the creation of Spark too.

‘When I started Spark, I could just about switch on the computer and learn how to do a zoom call, my brain had to rebuild pathways,’ she says.

Becki, who has Non Epileptic Attack Disorder, still suffers with seizures and there are times when she cannot speak or even move, but she won’t let it stop her.

’That's the thing about Spark: we never say that we’ve got our stuff together, we’re very honest.

‘Sometimes I'll sit there, I might cry, I might get very overwhelmed, people see that and realise that I struggle, and that vulnerability is okay when you're safe.’