COOKING, bingo and creative writing might seem the most unlikely solutions to address the unemployment, poor health and addiction problems which have long blighted Scotland's poorest communities.

But a pioneering initiative is using community activities to try to tackle issues of deprivation and inequality in disadvantaged areas.

More than 9,000 people have participated in the Link-Up initiative, developed by venture philanthropy organisation Inspiring Scotland, since January 2012. The first evaluation of the scheme has found nearly two-thirds had never taken part in any community activity before and a similar number reported their mental and physical health had improved.

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The project organisers says it helps to boost the confidence and aspirations of people struggling in poverty who often themselves labelled as "feckless" or "workshy". Success stories include one woman who found a job after 15 years of being out of work.

Andrew Magowan, Link-Up Programme Manager at Inspiring Scotland, said the idea stemmed from the fact that decades of investment in deprived communities was failing to make any significant impact on levels of inequality, such as employment levels and crime.

He said there was also a growing realisation that attempts to solve issues in communities had resulted in a culture of dependency - where there is the belief nothing can be fixed unless there is a "professional" helping.

But the difference with the Link-Up programme is it relies on communities coming up with their own ideas on interests and activities, with a dedicated worker in each area just to lend a hand with the projects.

Magowan said: "Our starting point is what is good about where you live. We don't say - what sort of things do you want fixed, how can we improve where you live?

"Our starting point is to ask what are you good at, what are you interested in? That provokes a strange response in a lot of people who have never been asked that question before."

Ten communities have been involved in the pilot, including Possil and the Gorbals in Glasgow, Alloa in Clackmannanshire, Muirhouse in Edinburgh and Gallatown in Kirkcaldy, Fife. The activities set up by locals have ranged from bingo and community gardening to DJ workshops, self-defence and athletics groups.

The first three years was funded by just over £2 million from the Scottish Government's cashback for communities programme, which uses funds recovered from the proceeds of crime.

The evaluation of the benefits of the programme has estimated it has resulted in financial benefits of up to £6million, taking into account factors such as participants getting jobs and using health services less, as well as including a value for increased satisfaction with life.

Magowan said a crucial aspect was the initiative helped to build the confidence of participants and provide new friendship and support.

"The labels that often get applied to people in this environment are the feckless, workshy, scum," he said.

"But they start to see themselves as being a positive contributor and making a difference to their community. That changes their view of themselves and starts to change their aspirations for the future.

"That can be engaging with public services and getting help, which they may have stopped doing or reducing drug or alcohol intake. We have got people learning new skills and qualifications, going on to college and university and some have gone on to get jobs."

He added: "Because it is driven by local folk themselves, the likelihood is that changes will be much more sustainable.

"We have not sent someone on an eight-week job club or cooking programme - so the chances of their involvement lasting is much greater."

Magowan does acknowledge that it is a slow process, but believes the initiative has a crucial role in changing perspectives in the community.

"Possil and places like this traditionally are known for bad things," he said. "That pervades the way people feel about themselves and about the community they live in.

"But with Link-Up they start to look more positively at where they live.

"We are starting to see these wider impacts and the model is proving it has got the potential to have community-wide benefits."

Darren Murray, 35, became involved in a creative writing group set up through the Link-Up programme after he moved to the Gorbals. An ex-drug addict who has been homeless, he said it had opened up many doors for him - including becoming involved in writing and theatre projects - as well as inspiring him to turn his life around.

He said: "My creative writing involved a lot of self-reflection, so I wrote a lot of matter of fact stuff about me.

"I have come off smack, I have come off methadone, but the hardest thing I have ever had to do is write about myself. In the course of that I was learning from my writing to make wee changes to better myself.

"The writing class isn't just two hours of writing - it is the biggest entity in my life to change me."

He added: "I am in the library every day reading books and articles - John F Kennedy speeches and Stephen Hawking books - and just trying to be inspired and change my life. I am quite happy with life."

Agnes Cameron goes every week to the Chancer's Women's Group, which meets every week in Possil to share lunch and take part in activities such as crafts and jewellery making. She said it helped her to take part in community activities again after suffering a major illness.

"For me the best thing has been the company to get me out of the house - I was sitting in the house far too much," she said. "My health was beginning to suffer because I was depressed too much.

"From day one I was welcomed in here, it has helped me a great deal to get out and my health has improved."

Billy Aird has been a volunteer with the Inner Circle Men's Group in Possil for around a year. The full-time dad, 33, who used to work on building sites, is now studying at college and aiming to complete an HNC in community work.

"We do a lot of things - we have arranged activities with Syrian refugees, going and talking to them, which helps people have a better understanding of the circumstances," he said. "We have also had people in to talk about sectarianism and put on events such as Highland Games for the young ones."

Aird said he believed it was the first men's group which had been set up the area.

"When someone comes in, you can tell their confidence levels are way down," he said. "It will take a couple of weeks for their confidence to build up, but they see the group is there for each other."

Gillian Halliday, Link-Up coordinator in Possil, said: "One of the great things about Link-Up is that it is about identifying what is really good within the community, what is already here, and not focusing on the bad stuff.

"It is baby steps - it is loads of little steps that increase people's self worth, self-awareness and the community as a whole.

"You put all those little steps together and it turns into something really quite phenomenal."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The Scottish Government welcomes the evaluation of Link Up. It provides encouraging early evidence that working in this way - supporting communities to build on their strengths and develop positive relationships and networks - helps to improve people's wellbeing and make our communities safer and stronger.

"We are currently considering support for the initiative over the longer term."