St Vincent’s Support Centre, based in East Leeds, is dedicated to changing lives through advice, support, education and community. However, when COVID-19 hit, St Vincent’s was no longer able to offer many of its services and so it shifted its focus, becoming a community hub, offering essential support to vulnerable people living nearby.
I spoke to Jonathan Morgan, one of St Vincent’s many dedicated volunteers, about the work the centre has been doing and its plans moving forward.
But first, I asked Jonathan about his back story and his reasons for volunteering for the centre. He explained that he ran a successful business in the City Centre for over 30 years, then in 2019, he sold the business to explore new opportunities and to have the freedom to do other things. For the short term, he was retained in the business, primarily to maintain key relationships and ensure a smooth transition. However, like so many of us, when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Jonathan was furloughed. This hit him hard, he told me, and instead of wallowing in his own sorrows, he acted.
He posted a message on LinkedIn, notifying his network that he was ‘unexpectedly available to help’. Within a few days, Jonathan had been contacted by St Vincent’s, who explained that they had lost most of their ‘regular’ volunteers as they were classed as vulnerable to COVID. So, Jonathan stepped up and went full time to help this community service.
St Vincent’s: the unofficial community hub
When the national lockdown hit us all in spring 2020, St Vincent’s Centre went from providing what was primarily face to face community services, such as support groups, financial training and job searching, to not being able to do anything. But the centre pivoted, and did so quickly. Within days of the initial national lockdown, the team at St Vincent’s cooked and delivered food to vulnerable people every day – a food box in the morning and a hot meal at lunch. In doing so, the centre played an essential role in ‘gluing society together’, Jonathon told me.
To ensure the centre could help as many people as possible, Jonathon helped St Vincent’s to build organic networks with other groups across the City, such as Richmond Hill School. He also helped strengthen relationships with key supporters such as Morrisons and FareShare Yorkshire. Other community centres across East Leeds also stepped up to support the community. He provided the example of Holbeck Together, which is another similar project. Based in a church, Holbeck Together cooked for the community, delivering hot food every day and even serving fish and chips on Fridays, courtesy of a local chippy. Such incredible projects were essential to the relief effort during the worst of the pandemic, and Jonathan believes their services are likely to remain in high demand for the foreseeable future.
Lockdown 2: St Vincent’s steps up again
In September, Jonathan had been called back to work at his old business. However, when lockdown 2 hit, he was furloughed again. The team at St Vincent’s called on him again, to help manage the centre’s refurbishment. His key focus was the development of a storage and sorting facility, and project management of the shop refit. He told me that this work was important because it gave St Vincent’s extra space to receive lots of food and other items.
With support from his wife and sister, both of whom have experience in volunteering, Jonathan oversaw the development of the storage areas, the updating of the shop and the refitting of the kitchen facilities, all in 10 days. The work, ‘tied in well with my existing skills and availability’, he said. As a result of the building renovation, St Vincent’s has not had to turn down donations, and thank goodness for that, as numerous groups and businesses from across Yorkshire have generously sent items to the centre. For example, the Left Bank Centre delivered over 350 bags of clothes that were left by students, and Taylors of Harrogate delivered over 1500 boxes of tea bags. Moreover, over 1000 tins of tomato soup were sent to the centre for anyone in need of a warm meal.
“Many things came out of it and I am massively grateful for the opportunity… when I was furloughed in March, all of a sudden I lost my purpose…I initially underestimated the impact of what being side-lined would feel like. As an unofficial community heart, providing crisis support, St Vincent’s was a life line… it was great to just be a part of it.”
Jonathan explained that whilst volunteering, he saw the challenges that many people in Leeds are facing. He feels that we need to look at other ways to support vulnerable people.
We discussed how this could might happen. One suggestion Jonathan has is to revive philanthropy in the City, like that laid down by our forefathers, which would benefit everyone. “It would be great if we could connect businesses and the third sector. Third sector organisations need access to the skills of those in the business sector, like funding and business planning.” Jonathon described how Holbeck Together had teamed up with businesses across the City to crowdfund the creation of Christmas cards that the centre hand delivered to show people that they are there, and that if they want to reach out, then there are people available to help if they need it.
Another good example of this, is the work of All Elves Aren’t We, a charitable group of Leeds United, who are collecting and distributing Christmas gifts to children who would otherwise receive none. “Put simply,” Jonathan said, “there are three ways that people can help: give your time and skills, give your things and give your money. There are loads of organisations worthy of support across the City, and there are equally loads of people who have the capacity to give. There are generations of people who have stopped working, for whatever reason, and many of these people have skills that they could use to support organisations, like St Vincent’s’. Such organisations give whatever they receive, and so it is important to give what we can. By giving of our time and money, aspirations could be raised, even for those who are living the hardest lives.”
Although Jonathan and his wife are back at work, they volunteer at St Vincent’s every Monday. They have seen what a difference the centre can make to the lives of people in Leeds “it is invaluable” and are therefore keen to ensure that they do what they can to help. I, for one, have been inspired to see what I can do to help as we move out of the pandemic.
You can visit St Vincent’s website here.
We’ll be catching up with St Vincent’s again soon, as well as Holbeck Together.
Feature photograph provided by St Vincent’s.