The Gillingham Community Church (GCC) does an enormous amount for those living in and around Gillingham and who are in difficulty. Its many different schemes help not just with advice but also practical, and immediate, help that can make the difference between eating and going hungry and having a warm home in winter or shivering.
‘We are here to help people who are struggling financially,’ says Hannah Gibbons from the church. ‘It is for people who are on low incomes and/or benefits who are ok until something goes wrong – someone in the family dies, a partner walks out, or they lose their job, and this pushes them over the edge because they don’t have back-up for when they are in a crisis. If you’re living on benefits you really are just scraping by, especially if you are single; there is more help out there for families.
‘We see a lot of people who have been the victims of domestic violence – they have moved from North Dorset Refuge and need some help. Another vulnerable group are couples in which one in the carer and the other is disabled – when either one dies, the other is left with nothing as the benefits stop immediately and, of course, if it is the carer who dies, their partner has lost the person who looks after them.’
Open Door is the GCC’s main point of contact with people who need help. A drop-in two mornings a week – Mondays and Thursdays – it’s where help and support can be found on issues such as debt, benefit assistance and advocacy, and help for special needs. ‘We are a listening ear and help where we can,’ says Hannah. ‘It can be a chat over a cup of tea, prayer, or we can see what more we can do to help.’
The church has filled the tank of a car with petrol to enable someone to visit a sick relative in hospital. It has also bought a train ticket for a young man just out of prison who needed to get to Salisbury to sign on.
People can walk in off the street but most are referred to the church from agencies, advocacy groups and GPs. On arrival, a person is met and talked to, and the church likes to see any paperwork that backs up a person’s claim of needing help. ‘But we tend to err on the side of believing people as we know they don’t want to come here and ask for help unless they really have to,’ says Hannah.
The Open Door mornings are also the distribution times for the Gillingham Food Bank, and as well as food, people can receive household packs with essentials such as toilet paper and washing powder. ‘We want to be able to personalise the household packs and give people what they need – so not toothpaste if they already have that, but something else that’s vital. This will be possible once we move to the new premises.’
GCC also subscribes to Acts 435, a charity website that allows people to give directly to others. Managed through the network of church and local charities around the country, it enables people to contribute to the advertised needs of others. ‘It allows us to get funding for local people in dire straits,’ says Hannah. ‘Through the scheme we have been able to help a mum afford school uniforms; someone-else was able to get a cooker, another a washing machine. We bought a wood-burner for someone who lived in the caravan and needed it. We have never had a request left unfulfilled.’
On the last Monday of the month, the church holds Open for Lunch which gives people a simple meal of hot soup and a roll. ‘It is free and open to anyone who want to use us,’ says Hannah.
Then there’s Link Befriender, a scheme which matches a lonely person with a voluntary ‘befriender’. ‘They can meet up as often they like and for as long as they like,’ says Hannah. ‘And it’s about being a friend, someone to talk to. They’re not there to do the chores but to play a game of Scrabble together, go to the garden centre and have a cup of tea.’ The scheme currently has about 10 befrienders, but GCC would like more.
The GCC also gives out hampers and gifts at Christmas time. ‘We give them to people we have met during the year and who we know are in need,’ says Hannah.
The church is a regular meeting point for many social welfare groups including the welfare and benefits officer from the housing association, Sovereign, who meets her residents there once a month. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the building for meetings, as does the Citizens Advice Bureau and a support group for Special Educational Needs (SEN).
Children’s groups also use the premises, including the toddler group, Bubbles, which meets every Friday (10am-11.30am) and for £1 per family offers children and their carers toys to play with, activities, a story, snack and song time.
GCC also run The Gap, a weekly after-school drop in club on Mondays for young people in years 7 – 11, with games (Xbox 360 to table football and board games) as well as a tuck shop.
The GGC’s ethos is to give back to the community – it certainly does that.
Gillingham Community Church is currently at The Old Library, Station Road, Gillingham (opposite Costa Coffee).