Tea, toast and tackling loneliness

02 JAN 2020

When Mandy Widdas started a new job as an Allchurches Trust Mission Apprentice at Amington Parish Church in Tamworth a little over a year ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking she had very little to learn about the local area.

Living only eight doors away and a long-time member of the congregation, Mandy’s was already a well-known face at the church. And, when the Reverend, Ben Green, told her about an opportunity to respond to her community’s many needs as a Mission Apprentice, Mandy knew it was her calling, even though it left her facing a difficult decision to reduce her hours working at the neighbouring pre-school.

The Mission Apprentice (MA) scheme is a two-year programme run by the Diocese of Birmingham that is funded by Allchurches Trust. It aims to grow new missional leaders from and for communities in parishes that recognise their need for new hope and regeneration. The scheme provides high quality training for them as they initiate all kinds of local outreach projects, making a positive difference to the lives of local people of all ages.

Mandy’s experience is a case in point. One of the original founders of Amington Parish Church’s ‘Stay and Play’ session for local families 19 years ago when her youngest daughter started at the local school, she now finds herself working proactively to grow the number of parents and carers accessing this busy and bustling session in an area where such opportunities are in short supply.

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On the day Allchurches Trust visited, rounds of toast, tea and squash were flowing as parents, carers and grandparents joined in the fun with their active pre-schoolers; many having dropped their older siblings off at the local school. A story and songs led by Mandy followed the socialising.

And there was little time for Mandy and the other volunteers to put up their feet, as preparation was soon underway for a ‘Places of Welcome’ gathering. A Church Urban Fund (CUF) initiative, Places of Welcome is a growing network of hospitality run by local community groups who want to make sure that everyone in their area has a place to go for a friendly face, a cup of tea and a conversation if and when they need it.
 
Mandy said: “When I started as a Mission Apprentice, I was really keen to start up ‘Places of Welcome’, but we had to wait until the new kitchen was installed along the wall of the church.
 
“It was frustrating having to wait, particularly when I was seeing and hearing about all the fantastic activities the other Mission Apprentices had started up, but it did give me time for reflection and relationship-building. Plus it’s been well worth the wait!
 
“Talking to Ben and the other amazing volunteers who support me with running these sessions, we all feel they have been really important in helping to tackle loneliness and isolation locally, but also in breaking down barriers between the older and younger generation.”
 
Jasmine lives on a narrowboat at a local marina, and every Thursday, she walks for an hour with her two children to drop her son, six-year-old Vincent, at school, and enjoy Stay and Play with her daughter, Sarah. She leaves before the end of the session to walk home as she needs to fill up the water on her boat.
 
Despite this, Jasmine usually finds time to bake brownies for the Place of Welcome session in the afternoon, wrapping herself up whatever the weather to make the long walk back with Sarah. A volunteer from the Waterways Chaplaincy – another Allchurches Trust beneficiary - often comes along to support Jasmine and her family.
 
And when Vincent comes out of school, he joins them all, along with fellow pupils from the local school. It’s wonderful to see faces light up when the children bring their energy and enthusiasm to the afternoon’s activities, and start to make a dent in the cakes and sausage rolls! On the day we joined them, there were record numbers of people attending – over 40 in total – along with happy, hard-working volunteers.
 
“There are no other kids living at the marina, so this session is really important to give Sarah opportunities to play and socialise with other kids,” said Jasmine.
 
“Coming here also gets me out and about, and has encouraged me to join the knit and natter session that runs once a fortnight.”
 
Mandy added: “The thing I love the most is the ordinariness of it. One minute we’re playing Christian music, and the next, rock and roll. Some people do come here and want to find out more about our church services, and several parents who come to the Stay and Play have had their children baptised here, but really, it’s all about the joy of bringing people together in the church. It’s a great feeling.”
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