Two university friends with a shared vision to help others have teamed up to change the lives of disabled people across the North East.
Gary Nicholson and Kathryn Barnett met as mature students when they were studying art degrees at the University of Sunderland.
Gary became paraplegic in 2009 following an operation to remove a tumour from his spinal cord. He was inspired by his degree to pass on what he had learned to others after graduating.
Gary, from Red House in Sunderland, said: “I was interested in the idea of using art as therapy because that is how it felt to me.
“I had been a joiner for almost 30 years of my life. One day I went into hospital for an operation. The next I was paraplegic.
“But it was through art, and coming to university to study, that I began to understand the important role it can play in helping people with all types of disabilities.”
With support from the University’s Enterprise Place scheme, based at Hope Street Xchange, Gary got guidance on how to start his own venture to assist and support others. He established Regeneration NE, a not-for-profit business offering art interventions and support to people living with all types of disabilities.
In 2019, Gary brought on board Kathryn, who has been a wheelchair user since 2013, to help him in his project. The need for this type of venture soon became apparent, and the pair have now gone on to expand their roles and projects, drawing national attention.
Kathryn, from County Durham, said: “For wheelchair users and clinically extremely vulnerable people, the past 18 months has been both isolating and frightening.
“So, we put this lived experience to good use, supporting others with distance learning projects and virtual exhibitions. We have secured funding from Arts Council England and worked extensively with the Cultural Spring. Our Butterfly Project 2020, was brought to national attention as a case study in a Creative People and Places scheme report.”
In 2020, Gary and Kathryn were selected to participate in Prosper North, a business development scheme for Northern heritage and culture organisations, with Creative United, and gained valuable mentorship and support for their long-term business plans.
On 12 August this year, the pair opened SALT – Sunderland Arts, Learning & Training – in Ryhope, Sunderland. They have also been instrumental in the establishment of Horizon, a new ethical arts centre with studio spaces, based in Seaham. This was officially opened on 19 August 2021.
It has been a journey with measurable impact for the pair who, after using art to challenge their own obstacles, are now sharing their success with others.
Kathryn said: “Disability changed our lives. Our University of Sunderland experience was truly life-changing, and now we want to use what we have learned to change the lives of others.”