A welcome way to help put an end to loneliness

'The rule here, is that everybody is welcome'.

Volunteer Derek Sykes teaches Gillian Cooper at the art and conversation class. 
Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
Volunteer Derek Sykes teaches Gillian Cooper at the art and conversation class. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

At St Vincent’s Support Centre in East Leeds, “it doesn’t matter what brings you here in the first place,” you’ll usually find a reason to come back.

And come back, they do. Refugees and immigrants who initially come for English language classes come back week after week for an Art and Conversation group; someone using the charity shop may return for lunch; and people who came for help with debt struggles might return for counselling.

But one thing that may go under the radar, but is in almost every service the centre offers, is help and support for those feeling isolated or lonely.

Centre manager Sheena Eastwood said: “There are people who come to us because they live on their own, or their circumstances have changed, for example, if their partner has died and they go from having a full and active social life to having nothing. They come to us for lunch, just to take up a couple of hours.”

Many of the people who attend the centre’s events and activities originally come to it for English classes.

Earlier this month, the charity Refugee Action published research as part of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission’s spotlight month on refugees found that refugees in Yorkshire had been left lonely and isolated because English language provision is “not fit for purpose”.

Charities like St Vincent’s, it said, were being forced to bridge the gap in provision.

In 2016/17, the charity taught 700 students English and IT.

“If you are new to the city and have little English it can be a strange and daunting place to find yourself in,” Mrs Eastwood said. “We offer more than just language classes, earlier this month we took a group out to the Yorkshire Dales so they could see beyond the city centre and practice their language at the same time. It’s about making them feel part of the community they live in.”

The centre’s own research among its English language students showed 86 per centre felt better able to maintain positive well-being because of the skills they had learnt.

Volunteers are crucial to the running of the centre. In 2016/17, they give up 13,188 hours - time that would have cost £94,954 if paid the living wage. Among the 85 volunteers at the centre are qualified counsellors who give up their time to help individuals in need. There is also free debt advice.

Mrs Eastwood said: “We don’t differentiate between our paid staff and volunteers. Both are absolutely essential.”

The Art and Conversation class on Tuesdays is popular with a range of people, from retirees to new mothers to refugees.

“Some people come to learn to draw, some to practice English, but some simply come because they are lonely. It’s a date in their diary each week.” Mrs Eastwood said. “There’s no pressure to attend as it is a drop in, and our community cafe also offers a warm and welcoming hub.”

The centre has been running Christmas Day dinners for four years, and also offers food hampers for people in need.

“Last year we had 14 people for lunch on Christmas Day who would otherwise have been on their own. Many of the volunteers would have spent the day alone too, so it’s as much for them.

“A lot of our volunteers have been affected by loneliness, just like the people who come to us,” Mrs Eastwood added. “By volunteering, they feel like they are giving something back.”

To find out more about the services at St Vincent’s, or volunteering, call 0113 248 4126.

The Yorkshire Post has been campaigning to highlight the devastating health effects of loneliness, which affects more than 90,000 older people in the region, since February 2014.

In February 2016, on the second anniversary of the campaign, we announced that Batley MP Jo Cox was launching a cross-party commission to tackle the issue. Following her tragic death in July last year, the commission was taken forward by her friend and colleague, Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves, and Conservative MP for South Ribble, Seema Kennedy.

This month we’re backing the Commission’s bid to get people to take responsibility for those in our lives who may be feeling lonely by simply starting a conversation.

Visit The Yorkshire Post website or search #happytochat for more information.