Giving hope at Christmas time

Vital supplies and a listening ear

FOR many people, the idea of a family Christmas roast with a succulent turkey and all the festive trimmings is nothing but a pipe dream. Jo Duckles visits the West Berks Food Bank, where volunteers work hard to make sure vulnerable people get the supplies they need and, where possible, a few Christmas treats. cupboard

I met Sarah Bennet, the administration manager, at the Thatcham Baptist Church, just one of the venues for the food bank, which gives out food from churches in Newbury, Hungerford and the Lambourn Valley. My visit was at the beginning of Advent, when the volunteers were sorting donations, including Advent Calendars for families.

The groceries were mainly donated by churches and shoppers (to collection points at nine supermarkets in West Berkshire). Already donations of Christmas puddings and mince pies were starting to roll in as I sat down with Sarah, and some of her fellow volunteers, Catherine Hamblin, and Sue Stevenson from St Mary’s, Thatcham, Colin Edwards from the Christadelphian Church and Vivienne Stewart from the Kennet Christian Centre in Newbury.

Sue said: “At Christmas we will try and give them double rations and include mince pies and Christmas puddings, chicken in white wine sauce and chocolate treats for the children, that sort of thing, but it really depends on what is donated.” Sarah said: “At this time of year local businesses do Christmas campaigns for us. We give them a specific list and they are very generous in how they support us.” listening

It’s not just about the food, but offering a listening ear to the clients who arrive at the church with a voucher from an official agency such as social services. “I think that’s as important as giving them food,” says Vivienne. The volunteers were aware that the friendly café style area is a far cry from the harsh, official job centres and other agencies where many of the clients have to go to claim benefits.

The volunteers say their motivation is the opportunity to help people. Sue said: “It’s like the story of the Good Samaritan. How can you pass by on the other side of the road when you can see a need and can do something about it? Sometimes you are the first person that’s really listened. You are not judging them, but are there to listen and hopefully send them away feeling more confident, even if you can’t change their situation.”

Colin, a retired deputy head teacher, said: “This is a non-judgemental response to people’s needs. Sometimes there is a big barrier to people just coming through the door and asking for something.” As well as cupboards full of tinned soups and vegetables and pasta and rice, there were boxes filled with various toiletries. Colin said: “One client had a 14-year-old daughter and I asked if he needed anything else. She had written down shampoo and when I checked we had just one bottle. I gave it to him and could see in his face he was really pleased. Something like that can make all the difference to a teenager.”

When clients arrive, the volunteers need to know what facilities they have at home. “Some don’t have a cooker, only a microwave, and some are living rough,” said Catherine. They told the story of one homeless man who came in dirty and they asked him if he would like a wash. “He went into the disabled toilet. He was in there for ages but when he came out he looked and felt so much better,” said Vivienne.

The scale of the problem

THE problem of hunger can be demonstrated by a rise in demand for supplies from Trussell Trust foodbanks. The trust is just one co-ordinator for food banks in the UK.
Between April and September 2015 Trussell Trust food banks gave 506,000 bags containing supplies to last for three days to people in crisis, compared to 493,000 in 2014. And while West Berkshire saw a slight drop in the number of people needing food banks over the same period (1,366 from April to September 2015 and 1,715 from April to September 2014), there are still many people who are in need.

Listen to the West Berkshire Foodbank talk about  their experiences:

A warm bed in Milton Keynes

by Linda Ward


Beds set up in one of the churches offering a warm shelter for the homeless in Milton Keynes. Photo: Ed Lee.

THIS winter, just like the four winters before, a charity made up from a group of dedicated volunteers and a handful of employees will bring support and hope to the homeless of Milton Linda Ward
Winter Night Shelter Milton Keynes (WNSMK) opened its doors in late November to 15 homeless and vulnerable people who would otherwise be sleeping rough. Funded by donations and local grants, the shelter operates every night from late November/early December through to mid-March.

A man looks forward to a hot meal at the WNSMK. Photo: Ed Lee.

A man looks forward to a hot meal at the WNSMK. Photo: Ed Lee.


Photo: Ed Lee

Guests at the shelter can be old or young, men and women. Some are long term homeless, but many are the victims of circumstance. They may have domestic issues, some will have lost jobs and no longer be able to pay for accommodation. Illness and disability are also factors that make people homeless. Some may have lost or had stolen their identity documents and without an address or documents they are unable to get work.

Supported by seven churches and their congregations, over 400 volunteers provide a hot meal, friendship and compassion to individuals admitted to the shelter. Each evening volunteers play games, watch films and undertake quizzes with the guests. During the day, they are back on the street, but secure in the knowledge they can get back into the shelter when it opens at 5.15pm. Important to the work is a welfare team that helps the guests move into more permanent accommodation. This means spaces become free for more homeless individuals throughout the season. The team also helps to replace lost documents and negotiate benefits for those not able to do so by themselves, so that they have a chance to rebuild their lives.

One shelter guest, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Without the shelter, I don’t know what I would have done. I have spent several nights on a friend’s sofa, but we had an argument and I couldn’t stay there anymore. Since I’ve been in the shelter, I’ve been helped to get my ID sorted so that I can claim benefits, I’ve had access to a GP and feel much more hopeful about the future. The volunteers are amazing, they give up their time to spend with us and the food is delicious.”
The Christmas period is a time of family and festivities for most, so for people without a home and little contact with their families, the shelter provides Christmas Cheer staying open all day to provide accommodation, Christmas Dinner and entertainment.

Last year, the lowest temperature recorded in Milton Keynes was minus six. During the four years they have operated, the shelter has accommodated 320 people, provided 7,174 meals and 3,587 warm beds for the night. It has helped 165 people into more permanent accommodation.

Many organisations provide support through donations of things the shelter can use or through monetary donations to keep the shelter running. The churches involved are St George’s – Wolverton, St Andrew’s Baptist – Far Bletchley, Newport Pagnell Baptist Church, New Life Church MK, Stony Stratford Community Church, Christ the Vine – Coffee Hall, St Mary’s RC – Woburn Sands.
Linda Ward is the Specialist Volunteer – Marketing, for the WNSMK.

Mothers Union Christmas cards for prisoners

EVERY year 1,400 Christmas cards are carefully written by Mothers’ Union members and posted to Oxfordshire’s Bullingdon Prison to cheer up inmates during the festive season.Envelopes

The mammoth effort is co-ordinated by Captain John Richards, a retired Church Army Captain living in Berinsfield. “Three years ago the prison chaplain said he’d like every prisoner to receive a
Christmas card. I stood up at the Mothers’ Union Oxford Diocese annual general meeting and told them about it,” says John. “They were enthusiastic and they came up trumps. Some branches have made cards, others have bought them and have sat and written them. Mary Sumner House (the national Mothers’ Union HQ) has helped and sent us some. It’s been a huge effort by people over the three counties for three years and it’s just magnificent.

“Everything has to be opened easily for the prison officers to check,” said Captain John. The cards have to remain anonymous as they are sent and distributed around the Category A prison.
Captain John said this is just one of many project that overturns any outdated perceptions about the Mothers’ Union. “A lot of members give sacrificially to projects in the developing world. They are doing what they can to help others and the same vision applies here. These women have got the vision and find little slots where help is needed and fill them.There are a lot of members who in their own quiet way are making positive changes in people’s lives.”


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