Earlier this year, on World Book Day, Durham-based optometrist Simon Berry decided to combine his love of books and his work as a trustee for the charity Grace House by launching The Gilesgate Story Challenge. The goal was to encourage local children to tap into their creativity by writing stories about vision or glasses in fewer than 2020 words (pun intended), which were then read by a panel of three judges to decide which stories would be published for the world to enjoy, raising money for Grace House through book sales.
‘Initially I was just planning on self-publishing around 25 entries, but the kids put so much into it and more people wanted to get involved so I thought we should do it a bit more professionally,’ explains Simon, an optometrist at Simon Berry Optometry in Gilesgate.
They turned to UK Book Publishing in Whitley Bay to produce the book, while Simon convinced a friend who sells optical equipment with a previous career in illustration to illustrate the winning story – which was difficult to judge given the amount and quality of entries they received. From immortal opticians to glasses which grant the wearer superpowers in order to save the world, the challenge demonstrated that the imagination of local children in the North East is stronger than ever.
Simon was keen for the project to be accessible to all, as at Simon Berry Optometry they work a lot with patients with learning disabilities. ‘One of my patients has Down Syndrome and she communicates using Makaton,’ says Simon. ‘One story was written by her sisters who communicate via Makaton with her – I’ve never seen a story that’s meant to be a conversation signed to one another. We’re hoping to film them actually signing it so people can see it.’
Simon also made the decision to leave the stories exactly how they were written by the children rather than editing them, which afforded them a huge sense of pride when they were able to see their stories word-for-word in a published book – sparking a new passion for some. ‘For one of the kids, this was the first story he had ever written but since then he’s been inspired to write sequels to his story,’ says Simon.
Although this year the stories were all focused on glasses and vision, Simon’s plan is to pass the torch to another organisation or company next year. ‘If we could get a baker to host the challenge, for example, then all the stories would be about baking, or if the Wildlife Trust did it then the children would write about wildlife,’ he explains.
The challenge becoming an annual event would allow the children to develop their writing skills as the years go on, as well as new children moving up through school to take part. Although the reaction to this year’s book has been overwhelmingly positive (including Waterstones Durham agreeing to carry the book and donate all profits to Grace House themselves), Simon hopes next year will be even better.
‘When you start something for the first time, it can be quite raw. The teachers were all great but they were probably thinking, “Why is an optician doing a short story challenge?”,’ he laughs. ‘Whereas next year, when they’ve seen how it turned out this year, they’ll put more effort into it as they realise it’s not just one of my daft ideas.’
So far, Simon’s ‘daft idea’ has raised an amazing £1,200 for Grace House, and you can help raise more money for children and young people with complex disabilities, health needs and life-limiting conditions by purchasing the book from Waterstones in Durham or on Amazon.