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Many communities disproportionately impacted by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis are those whose history is built on heavy industry, such as mining and the railways, with underfunding and a lack of opportunity lingering for decades following the loss of these sectors.

Easington Lane is one such community, where Hetton Colliery, supported by Hetton Colliery Railway, was once its beating heart, a title arguably now held by one organisation supported by County Durham Community Foundation’s Poverty Hurts Appeal, Easington Lane Community Access Point (ELCAP), which welcomes around 2,000 people each week through community transport and countless activities.

Once used as a chapel, ELCAP’s main building opened in 1928, complete with two billiards tables that are still in constant use, with some centre members having been coming to use them since its very beginnings.

ELCAP in its current form came about in 2001 after a merger of several other organisations, and Shaun Newton, who was recently awarded the British Empire Medal for his work there, has been the Centre Manager for six years. In that time, the team has grown from two part-time staff members to 15, assisted by 12 volunteers and a fleet of five minibuses, two that are disabled-friendly, which are vital to members of the surrounding community that have no other means of accessing the centre.

For some people, these minibus journeys to and from the centre provide vital contact time with people, particularly elderly people living in other areas, and have helped friendships blossom across local authority and parish boundaries. 

They also mean the ELCAP team, which is based on the border between Durham and Sunderland, where it is cut off from some local bus routes, can offer support to other local causes struggling through the cost-of-living crisis.

Shaun said: “There are no borders in our work. We’re happy to support people no matter who they are or where they’re from.”

This ‘no questions asked’ philosophy is central to ELCAP’s work, which includes an independent food bank run by the local churches – an hour a day at 11am, although many queue from 8am. People can be referred from the police, schools, social services or GPs, who the team liaise with to help prevent people slipping through the gaps. But even without a referral, local people can fill six bags of shopping each year to help them through, and like other charities, ELCAP is now seeing need from people struggling to make ends meet, even when working full time.

Shaun explained: “We have a lot of new build housing in the area, and some parents can’t afford the transport costs because their children still go to school elsewhere.”

Despite ongoing cost challenges, the centre and church teams have managed to keep the food bank going, only running out of stock once in the autumn due to the scale of local demand.

Grant-purchased and donated store cupboard items are supplemented by the centre’s membership of FareShare, which sees Shaun visit large supermarkets as far afield as Seaham to collect fresh and frozen goods.

In addition to the food pantry, ELCAP, which was named North East Small Charity of the Year in 2020, and Sunderland City Council Shining Stars Awards Organisation of the Year in 2021, is a designated warm space, where freshly made soup and porridge are available daily alongside tea and coffee, from 8am to 5pm Monday to Thursday, and 8am to 1pm each Friday, with a timetable of 90-minute activities to choose from including art and crafts, a jigsaw group, board games and traditional games like dominoes.

Through its Warm Space Charter, local people, none of whom need a reason to attend, are kept safe, warm, and their confidentiality and dignity is assured, offering valuable peace of mind, not only for local residents, but their relatives across the country that can feel reassured their loved one is being taken care of while using the space, which receives no government support towards its heating bills.

Primarily grant-supported, ELCAP, like many other County Durham organisations, has seen some private donations dry up over recent weeks. Shaun said: “Donations have dwindled quite away, and the cashflow forecast keeps me awake at night. I’m always looking for the best deals to meet our running costs.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic led to the closure of the local pie shop, the ELCAP team stepped in and now makes inexpensive and nutritious hot pies for the local community two days a week.

The centre also charges small, affordable amounts for some of its services, such as community transport, and supplements its income through the private hire of the 1950s hall it runs next to the main building, which, with commercial kitchen facilities and audio-visual fixtures, is open seven days a week and is the home of several regular community activities, including ELCAP’s popular lunch club and Thursday coffee mornings, exercise classes, a young people’s group, local brass band rehearsals and Slimming World sessions.

The Monday lunch club, which has around 50 members, costs only £4 per person, with an additional £1 for the raffle, which funds three-day trips each year. One regular, 93-year-old Anne Park, a County Durham resident, has been coming for around five years and said: “If it weren’t for this, I wouldn’t get out. You get a lovely meal, a bit of company, and entertainment – what more do you want? And everybody is so nice.”

Shaun added: “For many it’s a lifeline.”

The club offers a real sense of community, with members including distant relatives of Shaun, whose local roots go back generations, and other members of the ELCAP team, as well as a dinner lady that remembers Shaun from his school days in Easington Lane.

This local knowledge goes a long way, helping ELCAP to make appropriate referrals to other support organisations, such as Shiney Marras, which attracts mainly men from the area.

ELCAP’s longevity means it can boast a mature tree in the grounds that was planted by none other than the late Queen Mother, a young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, whose family once owned the land the colliery was built on. It also has a connection to the family of the new Princess of Wales, and history is celebrated throughout the building.

Homage is paid to both the area’s colliery and railway heritage throughout, with plaques, photographs and newspaper cuttings on display, but upstairs in the original miner’s welfare hall is a permanent exhibition where young people often come to learn about how the innovations of the past can carry us forward into the future, as well as to admire a sculpture of an old locomotive decorated with glass tiles designed by local children.

In the spacious meeting room in the annex, which was added to the building in 1974, there’s also a 3D printer responsible for an impressive display model of the Hetton Colliery locomotive, a photo of which is also framed on the wall.

And while history is crucial to ELCAP’s identity, it is very much a forward-looking organisation, with hopes to add an additional minibus to its fleet, and ambitions for its centenary year that, if funding allows, may see access improvements between the main building and the hall.

However, Shaun is under no illusion as to the challenge involved in achieving this, and is aware he may need to be flexible in helping the community navigate ongoing pressures, such as by sub-contracting staff to support other local organisations. He said: “First of all, we want to maintain what we’ve got. If we can still be here in five years, that will be an achievement in itself.”

Among the services and activities ELCAP is working hard to maintain are an indoor and outdoor creche for tiny tots and children that is open four days a week for up to 60 pre-schoolers, and an after-school club, where parents and youngsters can learn cookery skills. 

The centre also runs adult courses, which simply couldn’t take place without the support of volunteers, many of whom have received aid from ELCAP before coming on board, such as Sharon, who says the centre saved her life.

Similarly, before she became a volunteer, Rachel received twice-weekly hot meal deliveries to support her young family during lockdown. Currently in recovery from alcohol dependency, Rachel credits her role at ELCAP with helping her stay sober for 10 months and counting. She said: “I love it here. I get a lot out of it, and my three kids get their Mam back.”

Rachel volunteers five days a week, giving herself only an occasional Friday break, and was rewarded recently for her commitment to the centre’s work by attending the North East Charity Awards on its behalf, accompanying its longest serving trustee, Rita Grey, who was named Charity Champion of the Year, as well as this year receiving the Lifetime Contribution Award in the VCAS Open Arms scheme, and in 2020 being highly commended for the VCAS Open Arms Award, when she was beaten to the title by Shaun.

After 53 years of service, Rita isn’t ready to slow down yet, and these awards are just the tip of the iceberg, with the ELCAP trophy cabinet also boasting the VCAS Open Arms Lifetime Contribution Award for 2020, and a Highly Commended gong for its garden from the VCAS Open Arms Awards 2021. 

The garden, which has a polytunnel so food and flowers can be grown from seed year-round, is also dependent upon the labour of volunteers, who assist with centre activities, drive its buses, work in the creche, serve lunch, and help run the shop, which was fully refurbished during lockdown and sells donated goods, as well as being a site for community crafts such as card-making.

Outside, there is a green gym for community use, and a memorial garden, while inside the Christmas tree is adorned with condolence and memorial messages from members of the Easington Lane community, who clearly feel a strong connection to the centre, which is also used as the local polling station.

ELCAP’s small IT suite is in constant use, offering an affordable printing service as well as support with skills that can help people into jobs, especially those with no home computer.

This service was in particular demand once restrictions were lifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw some local senior citizen’s clubs close after more than 50 years. The pandemic also saw the team lose some volunteers, and gain others, and there was a similar pattern among centre users.

Despite these changes, the team managed to deliver 600 hot Christmas dinners to local households in 2020, within a care package also containing a selection box, party poppers and other small items that made a big difference in helping people celebrate the special day while isolating.

Passionate about the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector, Shaun, who sits on social prescribing panels both for Sunderland City Council and Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East (VONNE), the regional support body for the charity sector, is keen to encourage more people to see VCSE work as a career choice, with degree apprenticeships one avenue he’d like to see become standard. 

Currently studying for a Master’s in Strategic Leadership Management, he also encourages team members to gain qualifications, and is proud the centre is a Living Wage Employer, with salaries starting at £11 an hour.

Alongside his centre work, Shaun is heavily involved in the church, and is a member of a disabled club, which supports a close family member. He added: “People know if they want to catch me at home, they have to ring after 10.30 at night.”

We’d like to thank trustee Sheelagh Steele, Lucy Hinds, granddaughter of Harry Banks of the Banks Group, and Richard Derrick, the Managing Director of mining and quarrying equipment supplier Thorne and Derrick International, just some of the donors that helped make our Poverty Hurts grant to ELCAP possible.

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