Building Communities – a Young Person’s View of Caritas Westminster


Anna Huynh is a young person who has recently visited Caritas Westminster to observe us for a month, visiting some of our services, projects we support, and organisations we work with. In this year of our tenth anniversary, it has been refreshing to read Anna’s summary of the work that she saw. She has witnessed the every-day activities which are rarely reported on, noticing how much these build up strong communities of support, bringing into the centre those who might otherwise be pushed to the edges of society, and giving people the confidence to take their next step. 

Anna visited: Caritas Deaf Service (attending a signed Mass); Caritas St Joseph’s in HendonThe Hitchin PantrySt Monica’s parish in HoxtonFeed Up Warm Up in HitchinStokey Community Food Shop in Stoke Newington and the Notre Dame Refugee Centre.

Here are some extracts from Anna’s report, or click on the above links to go directly to the relevant section:

Caritas Deaf Service 

The Deaf Service aims to create a community for the Deaf Community by providing them with a breadth of services including monthly Signed Masses, opportunities to gather together in Bible study groups, and counselling and mental health resources.

Many members of the Deaf Community rely solely upon British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate, creating an isolating barrier from the rest of a society unfamiliar with BSL.  The monthly Signed Masses dismantle this barrier by including both the Deaf and hearing community in the Mass. Before Mass, a priest who has learned BSL held Confessions, and later, the same priest signed and spoke the Mass aloud. Some Deaf people chose the hymns and participated in a signing choir where a member of the Deaf Community signed the lyrics and others signed along. The Mass concluded with an opportunity for members of the congregation to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

After the Mass, the congregation stayed and socialized over squash and cake. It was during this gathering time that I realized the monthly Masses have helped create a support network for the Deaf Community and provide a welcoming home for them to have both a social and spiritual journey.  

Caritas St Joseph’s – Lifelong Learning Centre

The mission of St. Joseph’s is to support individuals with intellectual disabilities by offering important opportunities for social inclusion, teaching students skills to apply for employment in work enterprise programs, and recognizing the innate dignity in each of its students. 

I attended several social enterprise classes, where teachers helped students make items they could sell to support the Centre, such as paper wastebaskets, bath bombs and salt rubs, and flower bouquets. I also attended classes meant for socialization and mental stimulation, such as an acting course, a play props workshop, and a computer skills course. In every class, the teachers treated their students with respect, kindness and dignity and made sure each student felt they were a valued member of the class.  The teachers carefully noted their students’ progress and behaviour and tailored the activities to each student’s needs.

It is apparent that all the students truly enjoy being with their classmates and teacher and have built bonds with them that reach outside the classroom. This emphasizes how important St. Joseph’s Activity Centre is in not only giving individuals with intellectual disabilities a safe space to learn new skills and stimulate their minds, but more importantly, an opportunity to socialize and be part of a welcoming, supportive community. 

Hitchin Pantry

The Hitchin Pantry is a social supermarket that provides an affordable shopping option while creating an inclusive, supportive community. For a weekly membership fee of £4, the pantry offers a friendly environment to shop for fresh supplies including fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, bread, hygiene products, and flowers. This is a small fee, but it helps preserve the dignity of the shopper and is reinvested to supplement the pantry’s stock for the following week. In this way, the shoppers are not only benefitting from the pantry’s service but also contributing to its sustainability. I visited the pantry several times during my time in London and was truly inspired by its welcoming atmosphere. 

Anyone who is struggling with the cost of food is welcome at the pantry. While cheerful music plays in the background, pantry volunteers greet shoppers warmly and quickly become friends with them as they help them select the items they’ll need for the week and gently ensure they adhere to the weekly guidelines.

The pantry is aware of the needs of its community and adapts quickly to meet any urgent challenges. As a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine, a steady flow of Ukrainian refugees has entered the local community. The pantry offers them three months of its service for free while they work to rebuild their lives in a new country. I accompanied many Ukrainian refugees as they shopped in the pantry, and met a young man who had just arrived from Mariupol the previous day with nothing, and an eighteen-year-old girl who had travelled through three countries to reach England. To these refugees and to other new shoppers, the pantry can be an important lifeline of immediate, yet dignified support. 

St. Monica’s Food Shelter Services – Hoxton

St. Monica’s serves freshly cooked hot meals to those experiencing homelessness and offers takeaway food items multiple times a week. The mission of the kitchen is to reduce food waste by turning food leftovers into warm meals for those in need and to use these meals to bring people together into a supportive community. I had the opportunity to volunteer at a kitchen dinner and witness the powerful impact of providing those in need with a safe space to enjoy a hot meal.

In the afternoon, volunteers collected surplus food from the local council and donations from parishioners for the cook to use.  The cook prepared multiple mouth-watering hot and cold dishes to serve the guests. Any food leftover from cooking was set outside as supplies for the guests to take with them. Volunteers helped set out rice, chicken, meatballs, soup, chips, salad, and dessert dishes in a buffet line, and filled guests’ plates and storage containers with their foods of choice. The guests also assisted the volunteers in carrying heavy pots full of their warm meal and passed out plates and utensils to one another.

After the food was served, I noticed that a picture and condolence book was set out for a member of the community that had recently passed away, and guests went up to write notes as they ate their dinner. These simple acts truly touched me and communicated to me that this person had not been forgotten and was part of a community that valued and supported her.  This made me realize that the service has fulfilled its mission by building a supportive, welcoming community, where each member is treated with dignity and respect, around a shared, warm meal for those in need.

Feed Up Warm Up in Hitchin 

Feed Up Warm Up provides a two hour “rest stop” every week for people experiencing homelessness to receive shelter, a warm meal, food and toiletries supplies, and clothing. Importantly, this “rest stop” also includes support services, such as mental health support, financial advice, podiatry care, and access to a barber. 

I attended a Feed Up Warm Up barbecue which was set up outside with the guests sitting at tables under gazebos. To preserve human dignity and avoid guests lining up to receive their meals, volunteers wrote down orders like waiters at a restaurant and served them to people once they were fulfilled. The mood was warm and casual, due to friendly volunteers that chatted with guests, a musician who sang and played the ukulele, and a number of pets that were brought along by guests. Inside the scout hut, an informal food bank was set up for guests to collect enough food and hygiene supplies to last until another food bank opened on the weekend.

At the barbecue, I witnessed a woman come to the volunteer staff in a state of distress and in need of assistance. The staff immediately provided her with a warm meal, helped her arrange a place to stay for the night, and helped her interpret difficult legal documents. Even after she left, made an effort to keep in touch with her and one volunteer went to find her when it was clear she needed additional support. The aid offered to the woman in need embodies the purpose of Feed Up Warm Up: to provide a space for those experiencing homelessness to receive any support needed, from more immediate needs to an opportunity to socialize, and guidance to navigate trials in their lives.

Stokey Community Food Shop 

Stokey Community Food Shop is an affordable option for those in need to buy dry, fresh, and cultural food products. A weekly fee of £4 is required to shop, but those who cannot afford to pay the fee are still more than welcome to come and offer anything they can. The flexibility of this fee is due to generous contributions from other shoppers and volunteers who can afford to pay more, helping to create a supportive community around the shop. 

When they first enter the shop, customers are given a place to sit outside the main area and let in two at a time into a hall to pay and shop for food. They are allowed to peruse tables displaying bread, pasta, rice, sauces, snacks, desserts, and fresh produce at their own pace and select items to take home for the week. The meat products are kept in a refrigerator and a weekly menu is drawn up so shoppers can request which meat product they would like for the week. A warm, friendly atmosphere is created by volunteers chatting with shoppers and helping them choose their items.

In one corner of the room is a special table filled with foods from a variety of cultures, such as Caribbean and West African foods, including plantains, lentils, mangos, white yams and cassavas. These are purchased from a local shop using the money pooled together from the shoppers’ weekly fees. By providing these foods at an affordable price, the Food Shop allows shoppers the otherwise unattainable option of preserving their cultural identity. From my perspective, this is the mission of the Stokey Community Food Shop: to give those in need an affordable option for grocery shopping, while building a supportive community and preserving its culinary heritage.

Notre Dame Refugee Centre 

The Notre Dame Refugee Centre is a safe haven that provides services to meet the basic needs of refugees, and also offers them therapy and other counselling in order to help them integrate into a new country.  Many of the refugees who seek out the Centre are unable to fully participate in society as they wait for the government to slowly process their immigration papers.  

A portion of the Centre’s many services occur during its twice weekly drop-in days, where its doors are opened for any refugees to register for courses such as ESOL (English language lessons), IT advice, and job advice.  Guests can also pick up food parcels and select clothing items, hygiene products, and other basic supplies from a room they have dubbed “little Harrods.”  Anyone who visits is invited to share a cup of coffee and pastries in the “socializing café,” where guests and volunteers alike can chat and form bonds.  When I visited the café, I observed a devoted volunteer teaching guests an extra ESOL lesson and many guests chatting amongst each other.  I was inspired by the patience of the volunteers, who, despite the multiple language barriers in the room, took great efforts to ensure their guests were comfortable and content.

I spoke with the counsellor who told me that many refugees come to the Centre defeated from the long process of getting their immigration papers approved and therefore, the aim of her sessions and the Centre as a whole is to encourage their guests to keep persevering and to let them know they are not alone.  I reflected upon her words as I observed how warmly the volunteers at the Centre treated the refugees and how they made them feel truly at home.  This treatment embodies the mission of the Centre to be a safe, special place for refugees to recover and to find renewed hope.

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