“How would you describe St Augustine’s? I don’t think you can.”
How do you describe a place where around 800 people a month from about 50 countries come together in a spirit of community, respect and support?
“It’s a blessing to work there,” says centre leader Vicky Ledwidge. “The word unique gets bandied about a lot, but you won’t find anywhere like us!”
The centre began in what was the old vicarage at St Augustine’s Church in 1968, with the arrival of the Reverend King and his family.
St Augustine’s founder Denise Keenan and Mrs King decided to open a pre-school playgroup due to the shortage of nurseries available.
That soon evolved from helping children to adults.
“With children you have parents, and with parents you have problems,” says Denise, from Ovenden, who was made an MBE in 2008.
“But how you solve problems is by listening. It’s no good imposing things on people that they haven’t asked for, so we listened to what they needed and tried to provide it. It’s got to come from the people.”
And 50 years on, Denise is still volunteering at the centre.
“It’s gone so quickly, I don’t know how it’s happened!” she says. “But it’s amazing, it just goes on and on.
“We have so many volunteers and they’re all wonderful.”
The centrw works with people from a wide range of backgrounds; Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and vulnerable migrants as well as socially excluded British people
The staff and volunteers run a wide range of activities including advocacy and advice sessions, employability support, English classes, a housing and destitution project, community lunches, and many social events.
Vicky has worked at the centre since 2014, having previously worked for a similar charity in Manchester.
“Statistics from Migration Yorkshire tell us we’re working with 90 per cent more people than we were two years ago,” she says, “and we’re one of the busiest migrant support centres in the north of England.
“It’s a very special place. It’s the people who make it special.
“The people that come to us for help will call us their family.
“Everybody calls our founder Mama Denise.”
There are more than 200 volunteers and at the centre, which regularly welcomes 60-70 people a day, either coming for lunch, help and advice or classes.
“Four days a week we have a free community lunch, and we serve around 80 meals a day,” says Vicky. “We’re squeezed with our time, and we’re squeezed financially. The more we have, the more we can give away.
“As long as we can keep paying the bills, we’ll keep going. Any charity will tell you that core costs are hard to cover at the moment.
“My biggest challenge is paying things like electricity and food bills. Without those, we can’t operate.”
A new exhibition at the Piece Hall is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the centre, and is running until August 12.
“We were funded by All One Collective, a social change organisation, to do some workshops to generate artwork and poetry, which are brilliant and come from a real mix of demographics,” explains Vicki.
“The Piece Hall gifted us some space to showcase what we do, and we have six portraits of some of the incredible people we’ve helped.
“We’re keen to grow this so people can learn more about what makes Calderdale so special. We have luggage labels with questions on about Calderdale and the future, which people can answer and put on the wall.
“On July 14 and 28, from 11am to 1pm, we will have a pop-up photography studio which can be added to our collage, and hopefully we can take the exhibition elsewhere and it will grow and grow.
“The response from the public has been lovely, people have said they’ve been really inspired by it.”
The centre costs around £400,000 a year to run. It was named Charity of the Year at last year’s Community Foundation for Calderdale Community Spirit Awards, with founder Denise Keenan winning the Outstanding Achievement Award.
“On one hand, it hasn’t changed because it’s always been about the people who come,” says Vicki. “But on the other hand, it’s changed massively because the people who are coming have got such different needs.
“There are a lot more in-depth mental health needs now, maybe because people are more comfortable talking about them, or maybe more people are fleeing horrible situations.
“Calderdale became a dispersal area under the asylum system in 2001, so we were then serving a different client group and needed a different set of skills.
“Then in 2014/15 at the beginning of the refugee crisis, everything went a bit crazy when the photo of Alan Kurdi went viral.
“Calderdale Council, who have been incredible, pledged very quickly to bring people in under the Syrian Resettlement Scheme.
“We welcomed people into, I think, the first plane that came into the UK.
“Our job is to react to what’s going in the world, and we don’t know what is going to happen, so we just need to keep our doors open.
“But we will react, and we’ll react well. That’s what we do.”