A Swindon church is gearing up to continue supporting low-income families as the end of furlough plunges more people into poverty.
Gorse Hill Baptist Church has been awarded £5,000 from the Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response Fund to continue providing the food bags, which it calls Bags of Hope.
Volunteers at the church have packed and delivered bags full of essential groceries and toiletries, plus games and activities for children. to 300 households so far.
Volunteer Heather Prictor said the church will be continuing until at least the autumn.
She added: “We are planning to continue because with the furlough schemes coming to an end, we know there are going to be lots of redundancies and we know this is something we are going to have to help with.
“We are so grateful to the Wiltshire Community Foundation for the grant because it will keep us going.”
The church had originally planned to work with the charity Transforming Lives for Good to provide hot meals at its hall over the holidays for families who are eligible for free school meals.
However, when the country went into lockdown, TRG advised the church team to deliver food bags instead and donated £200 to start it off.
Mrs Prictor said: “Filling the bags with enough food cost £8.49 a bag so that was only enough for 20 bags, but the church membership really got behind the project and started buying extra food in with their own click and collect orders. Some sent us cheques, and some made us bags out of old curtains."
The church targeted families it knew through its own groups at first, but then began to widen its circle as more donations came in.
“As we started to talk to some of the heads in primary schools in some of the more deprived areas," Mrs Prictor said, "they felt very strongly that people who didn’t qualify for free school meals but were on a low income should be helped.
“This is a group of people who were in low paid jobs that have now been furloughed who are actually really struggling to feed their kids.”
A production line of volunteers packs donated food into bags, along with the games, puzzles and activity packs for the children.
“We find out how many adults are in the family and the sex and ages of the children so we can put in enough food and age-appropriate activities,” said Mrs Prictor.
“We have tried to really personalise the bags so the children can be excited about getting them.”
The church is planning to expand its support to be ready for a new wave of families falling into hardship.
Mrs Prictor, who previously worked for Swindon Borough Council in mental health management, said: “We are also looking at expanding what we are doing so we have people within the church doing debt advice training.
“We want to be able to meet all sorts of peoples’ needs because we know there is going to be an increase in people claiming Universal Credit. The CAB said there was a 21 per cent increase in Swindon just in June.”
She said offering a place where people can share their problems could prevent those problems from escalating and impacting their wellbeing.
“We want to be able to offer a listening ear because there is going to be an increase in referrals to the mental health services, which are already oversubscribed.
"It will mean there will be a really high threshold to meet and you will have to be really poorly to get into the secondary care services for mental health.
“Picking up some of those things early will be important and we are looking at how we can stay open more often, and looking at how we can have a café where people can drop in and have somebody to chat to if they want to.
"It’s about building on what we have started.”
The community foundation’s fund has broken the £1 million barrier and has so far awarded almost £700,000 to more than 170 groups across the county.
Interim co-chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “We are really pleased to be supporting work like this because it is meeting a real need and, like many groups we are funding, it will continue to be vitally important as Swindon and Wiltshire deal with the fallout from the pandemic.”
Anybody wishing donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or who wants to find out how to apply for a grant is asked to visit wiltshirecf.org.uk.