Lottery cash sees Stoke-on-Trent charity prevent more people experiencing loneliness

Just over a year year after a Stoke-on-Trent community centre benefited from fund to help tackle loneliness, they say it has made a big difference.

Chell Area Family Action Group, based at the Whitfield Valley Centre in Fegg Hayes, was awarded nearly £100,000 in December 2018, from the Building Connections Fund developed in response to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness to support projects that prevent or reduce isolation.

That has allowed it to buy a disabled friendly mini bus, expand its lunch club, take on more staff, and set up new projects such as Men In Sheds - which has given people the chance to socialise while carrying out practical work and learn DIY skills.

The funding will allow them to continue them until 2021.

Then in January 2019 the team were then given £47,000 from the city council's Community Investment Fund, which it used to refurbish an existing kitchen and create a new café.

The profits have then been put back into the charity to run further community activities and services.

Vitally, it has given local people a place to meet and socialise.

Bernie and Linda

Just over a year on, the team who run the centre say they can see the difference is funding has made.

Centre manager Linda Hamnett says that loneliness can cause a lot of problems.

She said: "We have just seen it so vividly since we started these projects, and people have been so willing to share their stories.

"We have volunteers who come to us and openly admit that had they not been attending the centre they would not have even been here any longer, because they had nothing to live for."

Bernie Webbe, the Community Enterprise Officer, said: "We have got individuals who have come in who have been through a pretty lonely time.

"They have just had a leaflet about the centre through the door, and now it is almost like a lifeline to them.

"They help out with things like maintenance, which is great as we are on restricted budgets.

"Before they would have been at home with very little to do."

"Amongst the volunteers there's been one particular person would have been on his own at Christmas, so one of the other volunteers invited them to have Christmas Day with their family."

The funding has allowed them to refurbish rooms that had previously been occupied by a doctor's surgery and dentist, which are now being used for different activities.

Bernie says it great to see groups of women come together there, for things like fused glass workshops.

She said: "A lot of them are nervous about actually coming in and meeting new people. 

"But within five minutes they are chatting away and freely opening up to each other.

"It is just amazing how something practical can allow them to do that."

Looking to the future, they are looking to expand the work they do, and ensure it is accessible to all.

That includes the gardening club, which has been running for several years, but extra funding has allowed them to employ a gardener to support the volunteers.

Linda said: "Within the grounds we have greenhouses and an allotment area, and we are having a paths put in and raised beds so people with disabilities can join in with the gardening.

"The step further is that we have been able to purchase a gardening van, and we go out on a daily basis when the weather is good.

"We have regular customer who ask us to tend their gardens, and we offer the service at a reduced rate.

"And through that route, as well as doing the gardens, at the same time we also find people at the same time who are experiencing loneliness.

"Our gardeners will have a coffee and a chat with them, and that brightens up their lives."

Other proposals for the future include a charity shop, in rooms currently being used for storage. 

A funding bid is being put together for that.

Bernie said: "Because of the community we work in there has been a call out for a charity shop.

"The volunteers are almost fighting amongst each other about who is going to work in there and who is going to manage it!

"There is a real enthusiasm for it."

There is more information on CAFAG here.

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