Summer is a good time for reflecting, looking back and taking stock, and this is what we at Caritas Westminster have invited our first cohort of Money Champions to do. In March 2021 fourteen people from ten parishes and schools across the Diocese embarked on our new Firm Foundations training programme, attending monthly online sessions led by Pat Fernandes from Advice 4 Renters, and Sr Silvana Dallanegra, our Financial Resilience lead. Twelve, from eight parishes and schools were able to complete the course, and have been telling us how they have been able to implement their learning, and what an impact it has made on their projects and local communities.
In July Gerry Bell from Palmers Green attended a meeting at Vaughan House, where he spoke about the foodbank he and his wife Jackie started in April 2020, in the parish centre. Originally intended as a pop-up, more than two years later it is still opening every week, serving the growing needs of around 350 people from the local area. In the process, Gerry finds himself being asked for help with benefit and grant applications, or an issue which needs more specialised help. Firm Foundations, he said, had helped him become more knowledgeable and confident, and more aware of how to navigate clients through various processes. Over time he hopes to pass on his knowledge and skills to those of his project’s volunteers who might be able to engage with clients in this way.
The Money Champions from different schools have also been involved in setting up and running their own foodbanks. Newman Catholic College in Harlesden has been able to provide a large number of immediate or short-term solutions for families, and also advertises the different services people can access, for example with fliers at PTA and parent-teacher meetings. Two teachers – Ilira Heath and Blaithin Nolan – ensured there was always an attendee from St Margaret Clitherow Primary in Neasden. Their foodbank directly supports over 40 families, as well as members of the wider parish community, but they worry that even more families will struggle over the coming months.
Ilira tells us:
I feel that the programme has really broadened my knowledge of the services which would be accessible to people who are facing financial difficulties. I was only ever aware of the CAB, but now I know of other services that people can access for help and advice.
The session on loan sharks was a real eye opener and I have been able to share that information with individuals who have been victims of such unlawful dealings. Every session I attended, I felt I learned something new, and this gave me even more confidence on how to best support those in need.
I have been able to direct 10 people to the right support by passing on information on what service they can use and how. There is always a stigma linked to financial hardship, but I believe that by perseverance, more people will be able to come forward.
The two Money Champions from Waltham Cross parish now offer a “bespoke drop-in”: people who contact the parish seeking help are referred to them, for a meeting at a mutually convenient time. Anthony Smith told us he had been able to provide
Assistance in creating a budget, help in accessing a food bank, guidance on charities providing fuel poverty assistance and directing an individual to government help in dealing with a loan shark… I have learnt a great deal joining the Firm Foundations programme, and now feel more confident and better informed about how to direct anyone who is seeking financial guidance. I would want to help anyone in the local community who is facing financial difficulties, whether they are a member of the parish or not.
A few months into the programme the Money Champions from White City parish carried out a survey of parishioners and project users, to discover how best to support them. At the heart of a large social housing estate, the parish was already serving over 150 local residents per week at their community food projects, and supporting others with different needs. Their parish priest, Fr Richard Nesbitt, became convinced that the best overall response would be to create a community hub to promote social and economic inclusion for people who had been particularly affected by the pandemic, whether financially, through job loss or through isolation.
Thanks to a grant from the St John Southworth Fund, this dream became a reality in February 2022, with one of the Money Champions, Laura Allison, employed as a part-time Community Support Worker. She and Sr Silvana, their local Caritas Development Worker, explained and launched the new project at the end of Mass one Sunday:https://www.youtube.com/embed/7NX71bOOhWk
Since February Laura has been able to help over 100 people using the food projects with a wide variety of issues. Her most recent focus has seen her obtaining the £150 Council Tax discount for 37 people, who had had difficulty accessing this. She says:
Firm Foundations inspired me to try and make a difference in both my parish and the wider community. The course taught me many new skills, and more importantly made me more confident that I could put those new skills to good use. It was really informative and well led. I think the greatest push for me to put those new skills into practice was Pat Fernandes, with her enthusiasm and knowledge. She was an inspiration and so full of passion for what she did that it gave me the confidence to try and do the same. Her support as a mentor also gave me confidence to start helping people – she was only at the end of the phone if I needed her.
We are going from strength to strength and we are creating a community hub as a point of help and advice for those who most need it. None of this would have been possible had I not done the course.
All the information supplied by the Money Champions has been extremely helpful to us, as we look ahead at ways we can help even more parishes and schools support their communities through the cost of living crisis.
We would like to invite a representative from every school and parish in the diocese to our Firm Foundations in a Cost of Living conference. Click here for more information and to sign up.