Alyx Dawid, Volunteer Development Co-ordinator at the Highwood Café, has been involved with the Brackenwood Community Association in Leeds for seven years. She discusses how the project has adapted to the effects of Covid-19 and the rising cost of living.
“The project was initially set up in March 2021 with the aim to continue the community café which was set up during the first lockdown to provide affordable food for all. The café runs alongside other events and activities hosted at the community centre such as bingo, parents and tots’ group, art classes, threading courses, to name just a few.
The café is almost entirely volunteer run. When we recruit new volunteers, we fund and support them to complete a Level 2 Food Hygiene certificate. The aim is for people to connect with their community, learn new skills, and benefit from the structure offered by volunteering. Some people volunteer with us on their days off work or even in their lunch hours; any of their time which they volunteer to us is hugely appreciated.
Two of the main areas we have had an impact are social isolation and economic disadvantage. In terms of reducing isolation, many of our volunteers live reasonably locally but until lockdown hit us, they barely even knew their neighbours. They’ve come here to volunteer and ended up building real friendship groups in the volunteer base.
An amazing example of how this has had an impact was in September last year when one of our groups was in real danger of having to close as we lost some volunteers, so two of our volunteers decided to take ownership of this group and run it themselves. They were so nervous and apprehensive at first, but they’ve grown in confidence and not only managed to keep it running but managed to expand the group as well by using the social connections they’ve built here.
Keeping costs low is a huge concern for us. We have a seniors’ group called Millie’s Gang which was in danger of having to be withdrawn because we couldn’t afford to keep running it, indeed we were actually losing money. We spoke to one of the service users who is a great baker and informally agreed that if she could support in making dessert then we would provide the main course and keep the price of the two-course meal at £3.50, which hasn’t risen in at least 6 years.
Many of our participants and service users survive on benefits and the Highwood café is one of the few reasonably priced places where people can get a meal out in the area. The cost of living increase has affected everyone locally, but what we’ve found is that many middle earners are struggling really badly but they’re embarrassed to ask for help or to access food bank services. Some people feel shame in asking for these things, but our main ethos is that no one goes hungry. If you’re a member or volunteer we offer activities at reduced rates. For example, there’s an ad hoc threading course – it’s an 8 week course and it’s £2 for the whole course for members or £2 per session for none members.
Mental health issues have gone through the roof with the impacts of Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis. We know that physical health aids mental health and vice versa, so we offer physical activities – karate classes have recently started, and we offer yoga and Tai Chi. Many people say they wouldn’t normally dream of doing Zumba (or whatever) but there’s nothing else on locally and people just want somewhere to come.
We try to have the café open every day so people have somewhere they can come and sit and just talk to someone else. Whilst the door is open anyone can come in and grab a cup of tea, we have free libraries within our café area for children and adults, as well as lots of games which kind people have donated. One participant has recently started a pool group on the weekend, so we’re continuing to expand with the support of volunteers in the local area.
No two days are the same here but the work we do is absolutely pivotal. We’ve offered education in food hygiene, digital training, and cleaning courses. We are central to the community and we like to think we’ve really brought people together through hard times.”
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