How a local organisation is connecting the community of Cross Gates in ways it never expected
Down an alleyway, off the main high street in Cross Gates, and behind a big red door, a woman has a vision - and possibly enough pots of porridge to power a small battalion.
Karen Gray has been at the helm of a small group called 'Connecting Cross Gates' since 2012.
Since then it has run projects and groups here and there from a community cafe, to a mental health support group and Christmas carols in the park (which last year ended up being carols in the street), a summer event for kids and book readings at John Smeaton school.
But in the last year since the pandemic outbreak, and particularly in the last few months, the work of Connecting Cross Gates has gathered pace.
It started delivering food parcels around Christmas time just to people the project knew from its groups that needed a bit of help. It teamed up with the Real Junk Food Project (RJFP), obtained some funding and has since helped around 100 families - and treble the number of children.
As the city starts to look beyond lockdown, Mrs Gray is looking at role Connecting Cross Gates can play beyond offering a cup of tea and a biscuit to people that are lonely or struggling to work due to mental or physical problems.
She said: "We have always thought we are a small charity but when you think ten people come to this group, 20 come to that and ten to this - we probably see about a hundred people a week. But it is in the last 12 months we have been doing more in the pandemic and we have grown.
"The reality is that the need has been exposed and one of the reasons that we have been able to do more is we got funding for COVID support and we are small and flexible enough to respond to the need because we know what's going on and people wanted to help.
"Some organisations have cut back and said they can't do it but we are quite flexible as a community project, we are always working with local people and responding to the need so it is relatively easy to reinvent ourselves and adjust."
As we sit chatting in the hall of the Methodist Chapel on Austhorpe Road, rows and table are piled high with porridge, cereals, tins and a delivery of fresh fruit and veg turns up courtesy of RJFP. A team of volunteers are divvying them up into boxes that will feed a family of four. And for many of the volunteers, this is as much about them as it is the people they are helping as due to mental health issues, physical or learning difficulties it is hard for them to secure meaningful employment.
And there in lies the vision.
Mrs Gray explained: "What we are hoping is that we will offer more and more activities so that we are a place open for people to come to, coming out of lockdown. They have been isolated and lonely - this is a safe place they can come and connect with others.
"We have people that have mental health problems that are not extreme enough to need lots of treatment but people feeling it. They can't get support or want somewhere they won't be judged and are accepted as they are and can be themselves. That is why we have a number of people with disabilities or social anxieties.
"We have seen the benefits of some of these young people who are not working coming in and doing something. They have worked so hard and we have been able to give them something to build their self-esteem.
"If I was really dreaming we would have a social supermarket to address food waste, and there are environmental benefits, but we want to deal with the personal, social and economic issues. If we could put that together and find a way to make it sustainable, give people jobs and a way into something else.
"With the cafe, a chap said 'you have changed my life'. He was lonely and depressed before going there. There are always new needs, it is a bit daunting but very rewarding. We can't meet the needs of everyone but for those that we can - we are making a real difference to their lives. We are helping create different ways for people to connect."