An initiative bringing help and hope to thousands of people in a former Staffordshire coal-mining town is set to continue beyond lockdown as a model for supporting the community.
Churches in the Burntwood Chase Team have been at the heart of Burntwood Be A Friend, a local partnership which mobilised in response to the Coronavirus crisis.
Revd Richard Westwood, Team Vicar at St Anne’s Chasetown, and Revd Matt Wallace, Team Vicar at St John’s Community Church Chase Terrace & Boney Hay, take up the story:
“A key focus of our time and energy over recent months has been Burntwood Be A Friend (BBAF) – a local initiative we’ve helped to set up to provide practical help and support to people in Burntwood and Hammerwich.
“Alongside Esther Allen (a member of St Anne’s who heads up family support centre Spark Burntwood), we continue to oversee BBAF, but the wider involvement and local response from folks has been fantastic – it’s been a true community partnership with Burntwood Town Council, the local foodbank, supermarkets, businesses and other local organisations involved.
“Along with a basic website and Facebook page (600 followers), a daily (now Mon-Fri) phone helpline and email was set up early on as a way for people to ask for help, or refer those they knew who were in need. Volunteers also delivered 10,000 flyers to ensure every household in the area was covered. Along with our existing knowledge of parishioners/households at risk of food poverty and facing isolation, BBAF has made a big difference to our community’s ability to find support & help when needed.”
BBAF has so far:
· Recruited and mobilised over 100 local, DBS-checked volunteers to do shopping, collect food donations and prescriptions and offer a listening ear and source support for those in need.
· Responded to over 450 requests for help, with follow-up support offered.
· Cooked and delivered over 3,000 cooked meals for local households in need.
· Provided and delivered approximately 1,500 food parcels for those in need.
· Set up four ‘community tables’ of short shelf-life produce available free for local residents and topped up on a regular basis each week.
“We have received over £30,000 in grants to help fund BBAF (from providers such as Martin Lewis (Money Saving Expert), Community Foundation, Coalfields and Severn Trent, with further bids currently being assessed by National Lottery Community Fund, the Co-op and Spar),” said Richard and Matt. “Local fundraising has also brought in thousands more, from direct giving, plant sales, raffles and sponsored challenges.
“We’ve been given thousands of pounds worth of food from Morrisons in Burntwood and numerous, regular donations of short shelf-life food from Co-op, Morrisons, Waitrose and Aldi as part of FairShare. This food is then distributed to local households in need and used to stock the four ‘community tables’ around the town.”
Guiding principles which seem to have been key in enabling to get BBAF established and working well include:
· That the churches already having strong local relationships with charities, pubs, shops and businesses pre-Covid, meaning they were able to mobilise help quickly.
· St Anne’s, St John’s & Spark’s buildings have been used throughout lockdown as food hubs for storage and distribution.
· A strong social media presence, coupled with a phoneline, email and flyers helped to get the word out.
· There is significant social & economic need in Burntwood, with many households facing food poverty. This immediate, local need has meant that they’ve been able to respond even within the restrictions of lockdown.
Richard and Matt explained: “Our motive has simply been to meet people’s needs. Although we would see this as being the gospel in action, we have not overtly promoted any faith agenda. This has enabled trust to be built locally and encouraged those outside of church life to become strong stakeholders in BBAF. Our churches have been very supportive and BBAF has given an important missional focus for our online services/resources at both St Anne’s and St John’s.
“Going forward, we’re in the process of setting up BBAF as a CIO with a constitution, trustees, bank account and are now in a position to employ a couple of community support workers on short-term contracts. Our hope is that BBAF can continue to develop as an initiative and offer ongoing help to our community over the coming years.
“For us both, although the pandemic has left us feeling pretty exhausted, stretched in ways we could never have foreseen, and in many ways working things out as we go along, our experience with BBAF has been amongst the most vibrant and vital missional work that either of us have ever been involved with. Whilst it is very much a work in progress, we feel it may have much to offer as an example of love in action for the wider mission of the church going forward.”