Emma Oliver is the founder and CEO of The Friendly Development Charity, based in the North-east, just outside Newcastle. Inspired to be a catalyst for change after watching a struggling mum use negative and destructive words to speak to her small child, what is now her charity came into being. “It broke my heart to hear someone being called stupid, especially as it was just a child, and it came from his mum who was obviously not in a good place.” Now passionately challenging mindsets and perceptions of beauty, Emma and her team are seeing lives changed by using the biblical truths they hold in their hearts and applying it where and how it’s needed most.
Emma took five minutes out of her hectic schedule to speak to Activate. Pull up a chair, stick the kettle on, and meet our latest Dangerous Woman.
Emma, tell us a bit about yourself.
Well I guess I have many different roles to different people. Firstly, servant to my Maker, wife to Mark and Mam to Lucy and Samson. Also daughter, sister, friend, boss and most recently founder of a charity. Each of these I value greatly. I live in Rowlands Gill, Tyneside in my beloved North-east.
And how did you became a Christian?
As a child I went to a Methodist church in my home town and was a keen member of the youth clubs and church trips away. I always classed myself as a Christian and believed in God, however it wasn’t until I met my now-husband Mark at university that he taught me about Jesus and the relationship I was made to have with Him. I soon realised that I did also want that for myself but had to make sure that I wasn’t trying to just please Mark. So I took my time discovering Jesus for myself and building on that relationship primarily. I knew that whatever happened in my relationship with Mark, I was always going to have a relationship with Jesus. In June 1998 I said to Mark, it’s time, I’m going to say yes to Jesus. I spent some time on my own praying and then began my new beginning!
Can you tell us a bit more about how your charity began?
The Friendly Development Charity actually began as a sole trader business in 2006. We had moved back home after living in Bradford, West Yorks for six years and I was pregnant with my daughter. Once my maternity leave had finished, rather than going to look for a job, it just felt right to set up on my own. For seven years the business grew little by little and then in 2012 I felt God leading me to transfer it to a charity. The last two years have been a whirlwind of answered prayer, obedience, discipline, patience, excitement and growth.
What’s the vision behind it that makes you a Dangerous Woman?
The work of The Friendly Development Charity is to see positive change in people’s circumstances. Ultimately I want to enable people to understand their true worth and believe that they are valued for who they are as a person, not just a shell with an appearance. We go into schools and community settings to run personal development programmes which allows this to happen. So equipping people with skills to look after their skin, their bodies, their hearts whilst also demonstrating that they are loved and are fearfully and wonderfully made. We do that for men and families too, sharing skills that impact daily routine and lead to hopefully a more fulfilled life.
We’ve noticed ‘Beautiful Is’ on Twitter and Instagram, what is it?
‘Beautiful is ___’ was one of the amazing gifts that I was able to grow as a result of becoming a charity. For many years as a teenager and young woman I was aware that too often people’s value and identity was in their appearance, rather than the other things that made them an all-round beautiful person, including their hobbies, qualities, personalities, experiences – both positive or negative, their hopes and their dreams. I’ve also experienced and seen that this can lead to a spiral of destructive feelings and comparisons, often having a catastrophic effect on other parts of life and relationships. We live in an image-driven world and a culture of commenting on and passing judgement on people’s appearance has led to a disproportionate placing of value and interpretation of what truly is ‘beautiful’. ‘Beautiful is___’is our campaign which is aiming to change that culture, place true value on people, challenge people’s perception of beautiful and send a clear message that we want to see real images that represent real people. Later this year we hope to take our body image roadshow into secondary schools around the North-east, we’re very excited about this!
Do you have any stories of how it’s impacting people so far?
Yes, we’re constantly hearing stories of how the increase in confidence people experience as a result of Beautiful is ___ and our other programmes is having an impact on their relationships, aspirations and self worth. We have seen people choosing to dream big instead of settling for less. We finished a 12-week programme last week and 3 women had found employment with another woman choosing to re-train in a career she previously didn’t think she could pursue. One of the effects I love to see is the language people use changing, for example one lady was constantly speaking negatively about herself and her children, including others around her. Something then changed in her and she began to see the good in her self and naturally began to affirm others and build them up, which had a profound effect on her relationship with her children and the others in the group.
What could other women around the country do, to support your work?
You could join our campaign on social media and share our work with your friends. The first Monday of every month we, and some of our wonderful supporters, do ‘no makeup Monday’. This is a great way of saying to others, “I am more than what I look like” but it’s actually become more than that to some, who find it a huge challenge to go barefaced and to post a picture. More crucially, in your community, you could simply begin by placing true value on people around you. Rather than commenting firstly on their appearance, tell them something about them as a person, what you appreciate and value in them. Yes we like to hear compliments about the way we look, that is important but it should be balanced.
Emma, what’s your favourite memory?
This is one of the questions we ask in our session and I love to hear what people say. I’m very sentimental and love to reminisce so I usually come up with loads! Right now though, I’m thinking about the time I went with my youth club to Norway and we canoed across a fjord and camped out on an island, with just a sleeping bag. It was summer and it was 24 hour daylight. That was very special and I’d love to do that again with my family.
Chicken fajitas with fresh salad, soured cream and limes.
Have you got time for a hobby?
I love socialising, sitting still or being active with people that I love!
What’s your favourite movie?
Dirty Dancing – I have seen it so many times that I can watch it in my head!
Dare you reveal your most embarrassing moment?
Being desperate for the loo whilst stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway. The rest speaks for itself!
Do you have a proudest moment?
It may be clichėd but having a healthy marriage and seeing my children grown with their own little characters is pretty incredible and something I try not to take for granted. And also getting our charity status last year!
We believe in friendship evangelism – reaching our world through authentic relationships – do you have any stories of how this has worked in your life?
Just being real with women that I’m friends with in the playground at school run time, women that I do life alongside at church or who I meet through work. I try (not always successfully) to get to school a good five minutes before the bell goes so that I have time to chat with the other parents there, choosing to invest time in people and share smiles with them. A smile and a hello can be an overflow of love and is a great way of starting a conversation and then maybe even a friendship.
Do you have one piece of wisdom or a quote you would like to share with our Activate women?
Give thanks for all of the opportunities that even our struggles bring. Although it is sometimes hard to be thankful when I’m in a valley, ‘I will praise the Lord God with a song and a thankful heart’ (Psalm 69:30). Building my identity in Christ and knowing His true love enables me to be a vessel for Him and passionately live out His plans for me.
You can find the Beautiful Is campaign on Instagram and Twitter: @Beautifulis_