Emma Colyer

Emma Colyer MBE is the founder and director of Body & Soul, a charity which supports children, teens and families living with HIV.

She talks to Katy Salter about how good design is important to charities, why Body & Soul has found its home in EC1 and how you can help them this Christmas…

How would you sum up Body & Soul in a few sentences?
We’re an award-winning charity that’s been running since 1996. We work with people living with and affected by HIV. Our programmes and our reason to be are about transforming lives. We help our members to live life to the full as much as possible and realise their potential.

Why did you decide to set up the charity and was there much else like it at the time?
I worked for another HIV organisation and, in the early days of HIV, the epidemic in the UK was mainly focused on adults. But as it progressed you could see it began to affect children, teenagers and families. There was nothing specific for that population. It was never a grand plan. It was knowing I had an opportunity and a responsibility to try and make a difference.

Do you remember the first Christmas after you’d launched the charity, back in 1996?
It was a whirlwind of activity. We’d gone through finding a building and launching, so it was an exciting time. It’s also a significant time of year for us because at Christmas people think about families. For our community, many don’t have families around that are accepting of their HIV status. People have also lost family members, so Body & Soul has that sense of family and community that’s even more important at that time of year. Our first Christmas was a time of celebration and celebrating lots of people’s lives. That hasn’t changed for us.

Why did you move the charity to Clerkenwell?
We’d always been in the Holborn area. We looked at so many buildings, up to Clerkenwell and Old Street. Clerkenwell is very accessible as our members come from all over London and beyond. It felt safe and the environment is quite mixed. Clerkenwell feels unusual in that sense – our neighbours are anything from an architecture firm to a dance school. All those great shops and businesses allow us to exist in a low-key way where we just fit into the community.

How did you know this building was the one?
It was very different to how it is now, lots of little offices, but the building has lots of light. It was Amnesty International before us, so there was some history – feeling that sense of human rights, maybe. It just felt right!


How does the design and feel of the centre differ to most charities and how did you create the space?
There’s a perception that charities should be in a space that’s ‘just good enough’ – the paint might be peeling, it’s run-down. It’s ironic as charities often deal with people going through immense struggles, and your environment impacts you hugely. Our space shows a sense of value – it’s beautiful, it’s cared for. That makes our members feel better. We worked with a fantastic architect, DMFK. They were excited to create a different kind of social space for a charity.

Did being in a design hub like Clerkenwell influence the space?
Maybe we were unconsciously drawn here! We’re very reflective of the environment we’re in. I think we contribute to the environment of Clerkenwell. The building is quite optimistic – externally and internally.

What facilities do you have for members?
It’s a five-storey building. The spaces are quite flexible and were designed that way. We have areas for workshops – yoga, relaxation classes, Q&A sessions with a doctor. There’s a space for children under 10. There’s a health and wellbeing floor with art therapy and counselling, a sensory room for little ones, a multimedia studio, a recreation area for the 10-12s and table tennis and football for the teenagers. Then we do things like dance and martial arts. On the top floor there’s a space where people eat together, with a big kitchen.

‘We help our members to live life to the full’

What does it mean to the children and adults that come there?
It is about transformation. People can come in feeling completely devastated by this HIV diagnosis, then meet other people in the same situation and come to a place that’s accepting, that believes in you as an individual – people say it is life transforming.

What do you like most about Clerkenwell?
I like going to Exmouth Market – to Brill, Caravan, Sweet or Gail’s – not just for good coffee but those companies have become supporters of Body & Soul. It’s something that has made a big difference to me personally, to feel that sense of community.

Where do you like to eat and drink in the area?
There are some great restaurants and bars. In the evenings, Caravan or Morito or pubs like The Wilmington or The Easton.

What can Post readers do to support Body & Soul this Christmas?
For some people volunteering makes sense – they have time and skills and can really make a difference by offering a couple of hours a week. All the information about volunteering is on our website. Alternatively, donating online is very easy…