Posted by on October 4, 2021

Over the course of last year and the pandemic, our operations at the Care Centre have been turned upside down and we’ve had to find new and creative ways of serving, connecting with and supporting our guests. Through our amazing volunteer team and our wonderfully generous sponsors, the Care Centre has been able to continue supporting current guests – as well as the many new referrals that we received throughout the pandemic.

Not only that, but we were also able to develop a ground-breaking programme, BRIDGE, which we launched this spring and this is what I’m here to talk to you about today. I going to speak about why we believed there was need to adapt our foodbank model, what we changed it too and how it’s going 4 months since launch.

Over the last three years, we have seen a significant rise in the number of regular guests using our services. The FEED food bank was always intended to be a gateway for people to pass through in order to reach a place of independence; from which they could move on from to fulfil their God given potential.

Increasingly we began to see that the old foodbank model was enabling continued dependency on the food bank rather than facilitating independency. In some cases, this has resulted in guests regularly visiting the foodbank over a number of years.

For us this is the key factor for changing our model to BRIDGE – we wanted to move away from enabling dependency to facilitating independence.

On top of this, the number of food banks across the UK has significantly grown over the last ‘austerity’ decade, many within St Albans itself who we work very closely with. However, what is not readily available is the ‘next step’ in supporting food bank users to become food secure and move towards financial independence. BRIDGE is targeted at this gap in service provision and provides a valuable and much needed stepping-stone for foodbank users.

Our overarching vision at the Care Centre is to see a community of transformed individuals living free from poverty and its effects. 

This means equipping guests to transform from a lifestyle of dependence to independence. Part of this involves restoring confidence, releasing hope and empowering guests.

BRIDGE plays a crucial factor in achieving this and is an outworking of our values of:

Dignity, Hope, Restoration & Transformation

The Care Centre currently runs two sessions:

  • A Monday session (in partnership with Trussell Trust) which has
  • Emergency food.
  • A café with free breakfast and lunch.
  • Drop-in clinics with a range of support free to access for anyone who comes: family lawyer, CAP, housing, advocacy work, Alpha, KIT, Living rooms (addiction support) and family support sessions.
  • And secondly we run a Wednesday session which
  • Provides membership to BRIDGE.
  • Provides training and volunteer/internship opportunities to equip people to fulfil their God given potential.
  • Hosts courses and workshops run through charity partners to meet specific needs of BRIDGE members – whether that’s budgeting advice or building IT or CV skills.
  • We have also recently started up two different, weekly bible studies for our Care Centre guests.

So, what actually is BRIDGE?

BRIDGE is a pathway that encompass food support from a fully functioning shop, alongside having a dedicated mentor who works with the guest to craft a bespoke plan of support, designed to facilitate a transition from dependence to independence.

BRIDGE is a roughly 3-6 month membership scheme, with members attending weekly.

The scheme is a paid monthly membership. This nominal cost covers everything within the 3-6 month membership: A key note here is our cost is extremely low, we will be charging monthly what other similar models charge weekly – our aim is empower our guests to take ownership of their membership, whilst restoring dignity.

The membership includes – All food from the Shop, including a wide range of fresh food, cupboard goods, toiletries and nappies. All Courses and workshops. And access to our mentors.

Guests at the Care Centre roughly move through four phases of support.

The 1st phase is initial contact, providing emergency food when needed, alongside accessing our free drop-in clinics and often working with our family support team.

Phase 2 is setting up a BRIDGE membership and working with mentors to create a bespoke support plan.

The 3rd phase is attending relevant workshops and actively working towards independence.

The last phase is engaging in work experience and volunteering programmes through ourselves and charity partners and taking that final step to finish their membership and be in a position to have full independence.

Now this will look different for each member which is why we are passionate about meeting our guests in their unique situations and crafting a support plan with matches that situation.

The key benefits of this model so far are:

  • The membership scheme incentivises a sense of ownership, belonging and belief in their social mobility.
  • A membership scheme means we can better direct people to what will help them in the long-term, and not just meet their immediate needs.
  • We have increased the diversity of courses and workshops we can offer
  • Regular 1 to 1 meetings alongside tailor made support plans for members, provides a meaningful action plan for overcoming challenging situations – which members are able to take real ownership of.

How is BRIDGE going so far?

Since launch we have given out: 1,667 total items through KIT our children’s clothing support – including 57 pieces equipment such as cots and prams and 217 items of school uniform.

Over 1,397 people have been fed through our emergency food provision and 1,135 people fed through BRIDGE.

That’s over 2,500 total people fed since launch 4 months ago.

We have 40 people, many of whom are large families, currently accessing BRIDGE with another 33 people on the BRIDGE waiting list. And we have had 4 people graduate from the BRIDGE programme, moving on from needing to access food support entirely.

Numbers are great, but more importantly, how are our guests finding BRIDGE so far? The response for our guests has been overwhelmingly positive and God has grown BRIDGE well beyond our expectations.

But, Rather than hearing it from me, let me read you a testimony from one of our BRIDGE guests:

“In the spring of 2021, the food bank ‘FEED’ as we know it had transformed itself with a little help from the humans into one of the most amazing projects I had the pleasure of being a part of.

Obviously, the emergency food packs were still available for the people in need, but a new project called BRIDGE opened its doors and so far, in its short time frame, I feel worthy again. I no longer feel embarrassed to take ‘free’ food as I am now paying for the service.

The payments are really small, token payments in fact, but the size of the payment is irrelevant, what making the payments has done for me is to give me some pride back in myself.

I finally feel like I am contributing to society and this lifts me up no end. I loved seeing all the staff and recipients at feed but it was still a gut wrenching thing to do every Monday and depending on how high my anxieties became, this could cause a run of rubbish days for the rest of the week, feeling you have nothing left to give and no self worth is awful.

Then along came Bridge!

Ignoring the fact that I am now no longer ashamed of collecting the food items as my small token payments creates large amounts of pride but I am now offered a mentorship with a wonderful lady who is trying desperately to show me how much more I am worth than what I can see with my own eyes.

We have so far worked on the importance of different life aspects and the skills that I have got, moving past 30 years of being a stay at home mum.

She has helped me pull the importance of being me, out from the bottom of the pile and has taught me that this is my turn now and that God has more planned for me.

I’m on a new path that was set out for me when I had life breathed into me and I’m so very excited to see what God has planned.

We pray, I cry, we laugh… its wonderful, its like having a new best friend who isn’t afraid to take me out of my comfort zone and I love her so much for that.”

It’s powerful hearing how God is working in people’s lives and seeing how God is bringing about change through BRIDGE. We are 4 months in now and have had 4 people graduate from the programme, whether that’s into full time employment or off to university to gain new skills.

I’m incredibly excited to see what God has planned for the future of BRIDGE and the Care Centre.