"In today's society, we all need to be kind to each other" - Calderdale Lighthouse providing a beacon of hope to those in need

As a sign of the times, Calderdale Lighthouse is both inspirational and heartbreaking.

Wednesday, 18th March 2020, 1:35 pm
Updated Wednesday, 18th March 2020, 1:36 pm
Volunteers at Calderdale Lighthouse

The charity - so named as it provides a beacon of hope to many - serves an increasing number of desperate families living in poverty, but is served by a committed team of volunteers and receives widespread support from the public.

In a perfect world, it wouldn't exist. But for many people in Calderdale, life is far from perfect.

Since January last year, the charity has had 779 referrals, which includes 1,471 individual family members.

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Stock at Calderdale Lighthouse's premises

In January this year, there were 78. In February, there were 57. Up to March 5, there were 15.

The problem is not going away.

"It's been mind blowing," says Diane Barker, who set-up Calderdale Lighthouse in 2018 with Donna Williams and Emma Poyser Buxton. "And it's not slowing down, it's getting busier.

"Last January and February, we did 55 referrals. We did more than that in February alone this year.

Stock at Calderdale Lighthouse's premises

"Something has to change, somewhere.

"People say 'are you busy' and we'll say 'yes' and they'll say 'oh that's great'. No it's not.

"I'd like to be sat here doing nothing because it means that nobody needs us.

"But we're busy constantly."

Stock at Calderdale Lighthouse's premises

"There are baby banks all over the place, but they only cater for certain ages," says Emma.

"Having worked with older children, we know poverty doesn't stop at two, three, four or five.

"The whole family need that support.

"We'll get referrals from a midwife dealing with a mum having a baby, but there's four other children in the family ranging from two to 16 who need things just as much.

"If they can't afford to put food on the table, they're not going to be able to afford toiletries.

"So they can get that from us.

"Sometimes teenagers need things like toiletries, because kids can be cruel.

"We give out toiletry bags to senior schools, and they'll say it stops bullying and absenteeism because if they have these toiletries, they can go to school.

"It's four or five quid, but the schools can't afford that when they need books.

"We work closely with the Halifax Community Kitchen, who send parcels into schools on a weekly basis for these families to take home over the weekend.

"Kids are getting the free school meals but then what happens on the weekends?"

"I had no idea about the level of poverty in Calderdale," says Diane.

"We were sorting out a referral at Christmas for kids that needed some bedding, so we were trying to find quilt covers and pillowcases that matched.

"It was a family of five. We had a couple, but didn't have matching pillowcases for all the quilt covers.

"When the mum came, I said 'I'm really sorry but we haven't got a blue one, but it's blue-ish' and she said to me 'there's five of them sleeping downstairs with coats over them'.

"You just think 'it doesn't matter if it doesn't match does it'.

"We've had referrals where four children are sleeping in a double bed."

"Some really pull at the heartstrings," says Donna. "You well up doing them.

"There was one that came from The Gathering Place, a little boy, only 11. He went up to the volunteers and said 'I need some shoes for school' and you just think 'oh my god'.

"How many 11-year-old boys would say that? They'd say 'I want a Nike top or Adidas trainers', but this poor little boy saying this, it really got to us.

"You also see real bravery of women who have fled domestic violence, or people who are terminally ill. The last thing they need to be worrying about is money.

"But people who have made that step away from abuse, some end up going back because they have nothing, and their kids have nothing.

"Even if they've previously worked, they're having to wait for Universal Credit, and that period of six or seven weeks is possibly why they go back, because how else will they manage?

"We provide things for them to show it was worth making that step and not to go back."

"We send out really lovely things," says Diane. "If it's not good enough for my children or grandchildren, it isn't going.

"People bring things and say 'I just thought it would do', well it bloody won't, because if we don't tell these kids they're worth better than that, it's going to continue.

"And when we send a referral out, we won't just put them in a black bag, they go in character bags. It's not rubbish, so why would we send it in a rubbish bag?

"At the minute, we're pretty well stocked, but if we're short on something, we have to ask quite carefully because we get inundated.

"The public in Calderdale, and beyond, are absolutely amazing. We couldn't do what we do without them.

"And we have a really amazing team of volunteers who come in every week, and they treat it like a job. They're brilliant, they've been with us from the beginning and without them, we'd struggle massively.

"Quite often work places will put a box in the staff room for toiletries and send them. We're forever needing them.

"Also, this is landfill, which is what people would do with it if we didn't take it.

"So it's also environmentally-friendly."

Charities like the Lighthouse are being affected by coronavirus as much as other organisations.

"Things are changing on an almost daily basis during this pandemic," says Diane.

"We have suspended all donations at this present time. We still have plenty of stock left though, to fulfill all referrals. This is to protect our volunteers, who's health and well being are of paramount importance to us.

"The professional agencies we work alongside are picking up their referrals as normal. They are trying to keep their face to face appointments to a minimum. This is in line with government guidelines.

"We will be updating our Facebook page with information, when changes occur.

"Our much needed service, will continue, as long as guidelines allow us."

The charity, which costs an estimated £1,000 a month to run, was flooded by Storm Ciara and forced to move premises, as well as throwing away at least four skips' worth of ruined stock.

"The units are built on a beck and it swelled, so the water was coming up through our toilet.

"It was coming through the walls and through the roof.

"We couldn't move things because we had nowhere to move them to.

"The cots were stood in that, and we can't give a cot out that was stood in flood water, so they had to go. So did all the mattresses.

"It was quite emotional that day because people give us cots and prams when they've either had a miscarriage or a failed IVF, and they've cherished them.

"They've given them to us in the hope we'd give it to a family in need, which we would have done.

"It was awful we had to throw them away."

Calderdale Lighthouse became a registered charity last year, and wrapped 650 Christmas presents in 2019. They will be sending out Easter eggs next month to families who otherwise wouldn't have any.

"We're told on a daily basis we do make a difference, and when we get that 'thank you' from a parent or a social worker or whoever, it makes a massive difference and makes it all worthwhile," says Donna. "It lifts your spirits.

"The feedback we get from people about when the child gets their bag is great.

"The toys or clothes we give to a child, they're that child's things. And a lot of these children don't have possessions of their own.

"The toys and the books are important to the kids. If you're in a house where you don't have shoes or toiletries, chances are you won't have books.

"Even if they're not reading, hopefully the pictures will stimulate them enough so that when they go to school, it will trigger that reading journey for them."

The team - who call themselves The Lighthouse Family - say they can cope with the level of demand, and have never failed to fulfill a referral, but they are fearful there are a lot more families in need in Calderdale who are too afraid to ask for help.

"People are scared," adds Diane, "they're scared the authorities might come and take their children off them.

"Unless they are accessing services they go under the radar.

"People will say they're fine when they're not. But it's nothing to be ashamed of.

"Just be kind, don't judge people, because it can happen to anybody.

"If you lost your job and didn't get another one on three of four months time, could you pay your bills and your mortgage?

"That's how quick it happens. It's scary.

"If you need something, don't be frightened to ask. If you need help, there are the services out there.

"We've got a room full of things, and if families are in need, we're here for them.

"In today's society, we all need to be kind to each other."

To donate to the charity, visit https://localgiving.org/charity/calderdalelighthouse/project/Floodfund/.