Evelyn Community Centre: community store and much more

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I recently spent some time at the Community Store in the Evelyn Community Centre in Deptford, speaking to the amazing volunteers and the families that shop there. Natasha Rickett (front left in image above), manager of Bunny Hop Day Nursery located at the centre, and Keith Walton (back left), Chair of Evelyn Tenants and Residents Association with an office in the centre upstairs, were approached by Lewisham Homes to set up this Community Store to provide  families on low incomes with affordable fresh food. Together they developed a concept, and with funding from Lewisham Homes for the first year, Natasha and Keith decided to go for it and opened their store for the first time in February 2019. Supported by over 10 keen volunteers – local residents such as Jane Walton, Keith’s wife, local councillor Silvana Kelleher, and others, some of whom are also members of the scheme, the store became an instant success. “Our plan was to make it look like a small-scale store where members could pick what they want”, Natasha tells me. “The idea was to remove the stigma of food banks and the perception of begging and to provide people with a shopping experience in their local community space. People pay £3.50 a week membership and for that price they get about £30 worth of shopping each week. Our aim was to slowly build up to 20 members in the first 6 months and to then slowly increase the number of members. However, on the first day, already 20 people signed up and we had another 20 on the waiting list. When we shut after the first day, we just couldn’t believe how well it went. For me this was a massive eye opener to see so many people in need of this. A lot of our customers are parents from the nursery, some of whom are literally on the breadline, and to see their happy faces when going home with 4 bags full of fresh food is just wonderful!”

The shop is open every Tuesday from 5 – 7pm. More information can be found here: https://www.lewishamhomes.org.uk/evelyn-community-store-opens-its-doors/ Pop down to the official opening event of the community story tomorrow, 31 July 2019 1 – 4pm with “family activities, stalls, food and financial inclusion support from the welfare benefits team” (lewishamhomes.org.uk/events/evelyn-community-store-opening-event). 

The food is collected from FareShare on Deptford Trading Estate and comes from leading supermarkets. Instead of going to waste, good quality surplus food is donated to FareShare, and places like Evelyn Community Centre pay an annual membership for a particular package. If requirements increase, the membership fee increases. On top of their weekly delivery, surplus food orders can also be made online on a live feed, depending on what is available, enabling the centres to top up their weekly deliveries with special additions. Keith then often collects the food from FareShare, or sometimes directly from the supermarket, which can then be frozen at the centre to remain fresh. “And it’s great when you can provide families with that bit of extra and special food, for example for Easter or Christmas”, Natasha says. “To see people’s faces when they leave is so rewarding! People don’t feel ashamed coming here, that’s why we have the tables out for people to sit down and talk, it has a community feel so people don’t have to come in hiding their faces. And while they’re waiting, they can have a cup of tea and some biscuits.”

All this involves a lot of groundwork and work behind the scenes, which Natasha and Keith do on a voluntary basis: going online every morning to see what surplus food is available, collecting food, freezing it, informing people, advertising, organising, etc. Sometimes they also contact supermarkets and companies directly to see if they can obtain free nappies or food for Christmas to give to families. One Christmas, Natasha contacted Aldi to see if she could pick up some surplus food on Christmas Eve. When she arrived, she was given so much food that she had to ring Keith to come with the minibus as she couldn’t fit it all into her car. They then distributed all the food among the families that came for a pickup. “Food poverty is always going to be an issue here, especially with families that are on low incomes or on benefits. Some families are on the breadline and it’s nice to see that some of these families have become members of the Community Store”, Natasha says.

Natasha Ricketts is founder and manager of Bunny Hop Day Nursery located at Evelyn Community Centre. She trained at a nursery in the same location about 25 years ago and after working there 18 months, the opportunity to set up her own nursery came up. Together with another lady who now works elsewhere, she set up Bunny Hop in 1996. Although it is a private nursery, Natasha decided a long time ago that she wanted the nursery to be available to local families on low incomes. With the view that she wasn’t going to retire early, and the fact that she has comparatively low overheads, despite increases in rent and food prices, she charges low rates. This, together with her flexible attitude to timings and other requirements (i.e. children are supposed to bring their own lunch but as some families cannot afford this, Natasha often feeds the kids), and the fact that Natasha is willing to be here all day long, has enabled many struggling parents and families, from all different cultures and walks of life, to leave their children at the nursery while they go to work, fulfil carer responsibilities or have the chance to get much-needed rest. “There are children here that unfortunately haven’t had the best start in life and if we can help them a little bit, we will”, Natasha says. Because of this, and the fact that some staff have worked with Natasha for over 20 years, the next generation of families are now bringing their children to the nursery, surprised and happy to see the same staff still work there.

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The nursery is located in the middle of Evelyn Estate and is surrounded by greenery. There is a large, lovingly decorated indoor space, one sheltered and roofed outdoor space and one fully open and outdoor play area. I’m struck by how green and quiet it is, meaning there are no cars or streets around and rather than high iron gates, which you usually see around playgrounds, the fence is covered in hedges so all you see is greenery. There is a lot of space, equipment and toys, and you can see it’s an enjoyable place for kids to play. “Most our children come from high rises”, Natasha explains, “and you know which ones because they’re the ones that want to be outside all the time cos there’s no balconies and a lot of the flats are over-occupied so when they come here, they want to be outside, come rain or shine.” Natasha says that three quarters of the families come from the immediate area, some from just outside the area and only about 3% come from outside Lewisham (but these are people who used to live in Deptford and attended the nursery themselves).

Because Natasha is at the Evelyn Community Centre all day, she, together with Keith have become the volunteers that deal with the day-to-day tasks that come up. Although there is a caretaker for the building, Natasha and Keith sweep floors, clean the toilets and kitchen area and do a lot of the repairs – particularly Keith. Keith says that because Lewisham Council is in the process of transferring the centre over to Lewisham Homes, hoping Lewisham Homes will take responsibility, repairs aren’t being dealt with. “For me that’s unfair because we’ve all been paying our rent and taxes to the council (there are others that rent offices) and they’re not putting the money back into the centre”, he says.  One of Natasha and Keith’s biggest questions is: “Where is all the money going? And all the money that is being saved by closing so many other centres – where is it going? It has not been put into the remaining centres so where is it? Because there is money – just nobody knows where it’s going!” With a 2-3-year wait on getting repairs done, Keith and Natasha prefer to take the bull by its horns and do it them themselves. At one point, Natasha even got a loan out to have a trip hazard fixed in the garden which otherwise would have meant that kids wouldn’t be able to play outside. It was the council’s responsibility and Natasha tried ages to get it remedied, but rather than waiting for an accident to happen while waiting to have it fixed, Natasha decided to sort it out herself.

When the centre seemed to be under threat a couple of years ago, Natasha and Keith were ready to fight. Evelyn Community Centre was on a list of centres that were potentially going to be closed, so each centre needed to compete to remain open. Natasha and Keith collected signatures, listed all the things they do at the centre and went to the consultation meetings. “It was a very scary time because you kind of get complacent when you’ve been here so long and then suddenly the thought of not being here! There’s no way they can take this down, there’s too many kids that need that place, where would they go?”, Natasha asks. Keith says there are now possible plans to knock down the centre and rebuild it within 50 new properties for rent but without parking. “How are people supposed to access the centre then? It’s all very well trying to reduce traffic and building cycle lanes, but not all people can cycle or walk. We have people with mobility issues here – how are they going to access their community centre? Not having parking spaces is not going to reduce traffic. People will just park in adjacent streets, making it impossible for others to find a parking space. Sometimes plans are really badly thought-through.”

For now, the centre remains open but with the council not willing to hire out the centre to more user groups than are currently there, and with all the council’s assets being sold off to develop flats, you never know what will happen next. “We just hope the council is going to start hiring it out again. We already have some user groups such as us, the nursery, a Vietnamese Dance Group, a Church group, a knitting and crochet group – we all pay rent, but there are a lot of other things people want to do, like an after-school-club, a dance club for the youngsters with hip-hop and street dance, and these things bring people together, it stops segregation! And it would bring in revenue too. Community centres are vital for an area, especially this one because it’s right in the middle of an estate so it brings all people together!”

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Since the cuts and the closure of so many vital centres that used to help people with paperwork, Natasha and Keith have also become go-to persons for people needing help filling in forms and other things.  Natasha expands: “One day this elderly gentleman came here, looking for the housing office, and I said ‘Sweetheart, that closed years ago. Is there anything I can help you with?’ So we sat down, I filled in his forms for him, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and posted it. After that he kept coming back about 2 or 3 times year to get help with his paperwork. Then he stopped coming, maybe he got too poorly. But if we hadn’t been here, what would he have done? Or the kids that are in the basketball court outside, when it’s really hot, they come in asking for water. So in the summer, we tend to put jugs of water in the fridge so we can give them water.”

Other times when Natasha opened the community centre for people in need was when shelter was needed for residents having been evacuated due to a fire breaking out in flats on Evelyn Estate on two different occasions. Being so well connected with local people, Natasha was informed immediately upon which she informed residents that she had opened the centre. Both times, residents spent the night there, had access to shelter, hot drinks and a quiet space for mourning and counselling upstairs. Another time she opened the centre during a power cut, enabling mothers to prepare bottles for their babies. Natasha loves living in Deptford, she likes its diversity, the community relations she has built up over the 30 years she’s been here, and she likes her place within the community. Despite working from “stupid o’clock to stupid o’clock”, if she can help local families that are in need, she is more than happy to do so.

Spending time at the community centre, particularly Tuesday evenings during the community store, I can see how important this centre and its initiatives are for local people. There is a buzz in the hall with people chatting, kids playing and parents doing the shopping. I sat down and chatted to a few people to hear their views and experience of Deptford, regeneration, housing and welfare cuts. I met two young mothers who shared their experiences of being homeless due to unfortunate circumstances in their lives. They talked of sleeping in a car with an 8-month old baby or sofa-surfing for months on end; of being treated as a number in homelessness statistics rather than as human beings; of the horrific and lengthy bidding process to get housed only to find yourself too scared to be in the kitchen with your children in case the dodgy boiler the council refuses to replace explodes again. And I met Rebecca, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of being an artist and who eagerly wrote a poem about how much she loves Deptford. As her mum did the shopping, she made a beautiful collage using some photographs I brought in to express her views about Deptford (see below). Also other shoppers expressed their views using images representing all kinds of different perspectives of Deptford which I’ve taken over the last couple of years (green spaces, new developments, council blocks, old and new shops) and writing comments (see below).

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I also spoke to Natasha and Keith about their views, and like the members I chatted to, they like some things and are sad about other things. One of their bug bears is that, in their view, there isn’t enough consultation with residents and that decisions seem to be made by people not living in the area. Natasha’s particularly cross about the way Deptford High Street has been and will be changed (pavements have been flattened to merge with the road; promised parking wasn’t delivered; the planned one-way system). “When they first changed Deptford High Street, when they said the pavements need doing, they said that all the residents and tenants had been consulted by sending letters out, inviting residents to come to consultations. So I asked a few traders on the High Street and none of them had received any letters. So, I don’t know who decides what’s to be done and how but I doubt it’s people that live or work in Deptford. Some people are making these changes which they think are for the best, but best for whom? We have a major issue with parking and the change in road layout has resulted in more rather than less congestion. It has certainly made my commute worse!” Keith agrees, saying the needs of local people are not being taken into consideration, particularly when it comes to parking.

Another issue for Natasha is the proposed moving of bus stops on Evelyn Street, which, in her view, seems to be in favour of commuters and new developments’ aesthetic rather than people in the area. “Who asked the elderly whether moving the bus stops would be convenient for them? They say there were consultations but with whom? Did they reach out to elderly and disabled people who might get confused or whose journeys will be made more difficult if bus stops are moved? You can’t just put letters through the door and expect people to come to consultations. Some people can’t read, others can’t see, others can’t leave the house. And many cannot navigate online sites to put their views in. I don’t know what the solution is but if you tell me you consulted the community, then I’d like to see evidence for that!” Natasha herself lives with a disability relating to her back, which is not immediately visible. She relies on a huge daily dose of strong pain medication to get through the day and at any moment she could have an episode that would leave her unable to walk and with pain that can only be relieved through spinal block or an epidural at the hospital. She knows what it means to not be able to get out of the house or not being able to get help fast enough. And Keith knows what it means not being able to access the increasingly more digitised information and consultation processes. He is dyslexic and despite being very computer-literate and involved with the local authorities[1], he finds it difficult to deal with all the written information. “There’s never going to be such a thing as complete digital inclusion. There are too many people in this borough with disabilities and dyslexia like me, that don’t allow you to be included.”

DSC_2514Keith tucking into pie & mash at Goddard’s before it closed in October 2018.

Another thing Natasha dislikes is the rapid increase of rent prices for businesses on the High Street. “There was a flower shop next door to Albin’s (Funeral parlour) which did really well. It was lovely with little trinkets in the window, and the lady had built up a nice clientele and friendships in the area. I saw her on her last day – she looked like a defeated woman. She said the rent was raised so much in one go that she couldn’t afford to keep the shop open. I just don’t understand why they would do that. The shop has been empty since then – it’s such a shame! [2] It’s sad because there is a lot of potential on the High Street and people are investing into their businesses and a year later the rent doubles and they have to close again. Instead of making Deptford more diverse and getting people to come down and stay, they’re just shutting everywhere down so it slowly dampens everyone’s spirit.” Natasha likes the new places on the High Street, like the flower shop that’s now gone, the gym, the Gin Bar, Tony’s Daily and other places. “It’s absolutely lovely to have little shops again but how long will they be there before they’re shifted out?”

Natasha also likes some of the new housing developments, although some of them are too crowded for her. She particularly likes the Anthology Development just down the road from the community centre – not only does she think the development looks fantastic, she also likes their ethos as one day they came in, offering to decorate the inside of Evelyn Community Centre. “They came round with all the different colour charts they use, asked us to have a look and get back to them. And since the council wasn’t fulfilling its responsibilities again, we really appreciated the grand gesture! And then the builders they were using came round and donated toys made by their apprentices, among them a toy kitchen (image above) which the kids love! So that was amazing!” But as much as Natasha likes the Anthology development, she is also aware that the people who live on Arklow Road are losing much of their daylight, making their homes gloomy even on a bright summer’s day. And she is particularly concerned about the Tyre Shop who’d been there ‘forever’. “Did he have to go? Was he outpriced? Did he have to move because they’ll put housing there? Did he have to go because he doesn’t fit with the image of the development? I don’t understand because he was always busy. I would really like to know what happened to him.”

DSC_1992New Cross Tyre Shop by Arklow Road and the Anthology Deptford Foundry Development in 2018.

[1] Keith was awarded Tenant Champion by Lewisham Homes in 2016 for the good work he does in his local community. More info here: https://www.lewishamhomes.org.uk/keith-is-24housing-tenant-champion/

[2] The shop became Deptford Beds in July 2019.

 

 

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