changing perceptions, godalming, charity, coffee shop, furniture

Charity Spot Changing Perceptions

23.10.2017 / words: Rich Lee / image: Fiona Digby - Jones

Part coffee shop, part upcycling workshop and emporium, we visit a remarkable community enterprise in Godalming that gives old furniture vibrant new life and provides a creative hub for people affected by disabilities to learn lifelong skills…

Long-time readers will know that we’ve been unapologetic about our love for the grassroots craft movement known as ‘Upcycling’. In essence, upcycling means taking worn out and unloved old furniture, ornaments and other household or garden objects and restoring them to new life and utility. But in the hands of many ‘upcyclers’, the process also transforms those objects instilling those items with an expression of their own unique personality.

A humble chest of drawers, for example, could be remade all kinds of elegant, charmingly quirky, radiantly colourful, or simply have its timeworn shabbiness brought to the fore as a quality to celebrate rather than reject. Upcycling saves on waste and provides a wonderful outlet for creativity. And while there are many purveyors of upcycling around Surrey, it would be hard to imagine one so uniquely special, nor as prodigiously talented, as the motley crew found on Godalming High Street at Changing Perceptions. 

Born three years ago as an offshoot of the celebrated Godalming epilepsy charity, The Meath, Changing Perceptions is the brainchild of Fiona Collier. Fiona has worked with furniture for most of her career in addition to volunteering her time to help people with disabilities. After working with the charity, she became inspired to merge her two passions into a project that enabled the Meath’s clients to get together and learn new skills that directly benefit themselves and the community they live in. And if it could help change perceptions of complex epilepsy and associated physical and learning disabilities along the way, then that could only be a very good thing too.


To visit Changing Perceptions, you first enter into a delightful coffee shop that also serves as a salesroom for some of the remarkable objects and furniture that emerge from the shop’s hub and heart: the workshop. Tucked further down the back of the shop, it’s here that I met Fiona and her team to experience Changing Perceptions for myself.


“It’s about making new friendships and learning new skills outside of a care environment”

“We prepare and paint old furniture provided by the general public to look more desirable,” explains Fiona as we walk around a central worktop surrounded by volunteers beavering away on a variety of projects. “Once the items are finished we sell them in the cafĂ©. This project is multi-purpose really: It’s connecting the Meath with the immediate community with an interesting, vibrant, different kind of activity. The pieces we produce are for anyone interested in their domestic environment, into upcycling and just like things that are a bit different, a bit quirky.”

On one worktop, a volunteer is cleaning up an ornate metal outdoor chair, then coating it in chalk paint, turning it a lustrous powder blue. In another corner, another client was in the process of upholstering a full suite of chairs. He makes it look easy. He even makes it look sort of fun, and this is coming from someone who finds something as inane as hanging a picture frame a colossal ‘mare. Dotted around the shop are various items of furniture, some finished, some on their way, but all revealing the creativity and passion the volunteers bring to bear, from the tiniest pencil pot to an antique sofa.

A merry cacophony of sanding, hammering, sawing and above all, laughter, permeates the whole place, making Changing Perceptions as infectious as it is fascinating. Fiona’s warm presence, and that of her team of experienced helpers, ensure that everyone feels like colleagues and never simply clients, all engaged in the same creative enterprise.

“It all helps to make it a really inclusive project and help dispel the stigma around people with disabilities - we prefer to say that we celebrate people’s abilities” she says. “It’s about making new friendships and learning new skills outside of a care environment.”

"They help me to look at the positive things I can do"

Amy, 27, has been honing her upcycling talents here for the last two years. She has been living with complex epilepsy since the age of ten. She manages her condition with medication and is assisted by charities like the Meath to live a full and productive life. “The Meath and Changing Perceptions have helped to give me independence and enabled me to learn new things. They help me to look at the positive things I can do. Anything that involves arts and crafts, I love. I’ve got lots of friends here, too. It’s a really wonderful place.”

The work Amy and the rest of the team produce has even begun to reach beyond their customer’s homes and out into the public in the form of handmade wildlife habitats to be strewn along Godalming’s ‘Willow Walk, from the Phillips Memorial to the Library, providing RSPB-approved homes for birds, and no doubt a source of pride for the local volunteers that built them. 

Before I left them to their work, Fiona couldn’t help but show off their latest acquisition, a laser cutter. It’s some serious kit and will enable them to produce more bespoke pieces for customers and even their own product line of decorations. With its keen eye for vintage nostalgia, upcycling and Christmas make a perfect match so you can be sure that the team at Changing Perceptions will craft something very special for your home over the festive season.

In fact, anyone with a hankering for some upcycling and painting of their own are very welcome here as Changing Perceptions run fun and friendly paint workshops that cover furniture preparation, ageing and distressing, the two-colour technique and waxing and finishing; all the techniques you’d need to put the chic into shabby.

You can donate nearly any kind of furniture to be upcycled, although ideally solid wood and nothing too big. Or you can simply pop in to Changing Perceptions and relax with a superb coffee, a slice of cake and simply admire the works produced by an inspiring team of people and a truly remarkable community enterprise.

Visit Changing Perceptions at 133 High Street, Godalming, Surrey, GU7 1AF
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