Wigan community hub Sunshine House continuing amid Covid-19 gloom
Community organisations and businesses have faced vast changes in 2020, and the Scholes local hub is no exception.
The venue has had to contend with major drops in income and keeping activities running in a Covid-secure way, while also supporting members of the community who have been shielding or staying at home.
Services have had to be adapted in order to keep running while others had to be stopped or put on hold.
The experience of the novel coronavirus has also got the senior team at Sunshine House thinking about the wider changes being wrought in society and how somewhere like a community hub could shift its work to help meet them.
Covid-19 has forced Sunshine House’s popular cafe to shut, with a delivery service instead taking between 30 and 60 hot meals to people’s doorsteps every day.
The community pantry which takes donated food from supermarkets and distributes it at very low prices has continued, even if at one point that meant passing groceries out through a window.
Lockdown also saw a vast drop in footfall, with only around 100 people per week passing through the centre compared to the 2,000 or so coming through the doors in an average seven-day period pre-March.
Centre manager Liz Heaton spoke of the importance of keeping in contact with people in the Scholes area and what happened when Sunshine House started providing services at home rather than the building serving as a hub for the local area.
She said: “We started providing takeaway meals for vulnerable people and those who had to isolate back in April and it was very successful so we’ve carried it on all the way through.
“We’ve got some new customers in this second wave too. We’re running the meals six days a week, Saturday is our only day off, and there’s a lot of demand for it.
“Someone sent me an email saying we were life savers for delivering meals to her parents. It gave her piece of mind knowing they were eating well and getting a hot substantial meal.
“I think a lot of it is loneliness. Some people phone to order meals for a full week but some ring every day, just for the conversation.
“I think the whole pandemic has shown how lonely people are. We always knew that, really, but this has proved it to us.”
To try to combat this Sunshine House has set up a friendship phone line people can ring if they need a chat, and Liz is keen to raise awareness of this as she is convinced the current volume of calls does not reflect the number of people who would actually benefit from the service.
Some people who rely on Sunshine House are starting to return through the doors now.
The computer club run by John Fox, which helps people solve any issues they have with technology, is up and running again and the Smile group run by Sheryl Bishop, a Wigan Council employee seconded to the hub, is providing adult social care.
Liz explains that this is particularly close to her heart.
She said: “This is really needed. My mum goes to it because she has Alzheimer’s and I’ve seen so much difference in her while it’s been shut.
“We’re doing two days a week at the moment, whereas normally it’s five days a week. Slowly but surely we’re getting it back.”
The community work, though, is just part of Sunshine House’s offer, and the organisation has had a big dent put in its finances by large organisations not booking its training rooms for large groups to do professional learning.
Some sessions are now running again but the centre says it expects takings on that front to be reduced for some time to come.
Residents are also feeling the pinch from the pandemic’s effects and the pantry is not the only way Sunshine House has been trying to lighten the burden on people’s purses.
With its charity shop and baby and toddler store on Scholes precinct having to shut during the lockdowns, there was a large collection of donated toys and other items for families were are being sold online.
Liz said: “We get about 40 to 60 people a day using the pantry and we’ve been selling the toys. It’s about affordability.
“At this time of year particularly people are struggling.”
Everyone at Sunshine House is full of praise for the way the 14-strong team there have handled the pandemic, providing services six days a week and having to adjust to the new regimes of regular cleaning of the building, using sanitiser stations, running track and trace for visitors and wearing face coverings and visors inside.
For Barbara Nettleton, the founder of the hub, the pandemic has caused her to start thinking more deeply about what Scholes’ needs are and how community facilities can meet them.
She wants Sunshine House to work with groups in society it has not really approached before and said the challenges around providing services and balancing the book require a good deal of flexibility and rebuilding.
She said: “It is a very sad time, actually. It has been a difficult year and everybody has been affected in some way.
“Businesses are suffering, we need to stop people on benefits going to loan sharks, and smaller charities and community groups can struggle compared to bigger ones. We have lost a lot of our income from room hire.
“It’s things like having coffee machines on lease. There isn’t a problem when we’ve got people coming in but now we still have to pay for them.
“We’ve got to look at what the future holds. We’ve had 100 people in here training and I think big meetings like that will return very slowly.
“We’ve got to look at what we’re doing and how we’re going to survive. I want us to work with younger people, teaching them skills if they are not in education or are going through the justice system.
“There are a lot of lonely people out there, and it’s not just older people.
“Some younger people have online friends but they’ve never met them.
“We need to encourage people to come out of their houses more, perhaps to come to us for training. It’s a vicious circle with people isolating and frightened to go out that we need to break.
“We’re also having to live with contradictory rules. It’s frustrating that we can’t get people into our cafe for a meal, because Sunshine House is a safe place.
“What the future holds is an open book. We need people to tell us what they need.”
For all the uncertainty that surrounds the future, though, Barbara is determined to ensure that Sunshine House will still be there in Scholes for those who need it.
She said: “We’re not giving up. Sunshine House is not closing, no matter how hard it gets. We will battle through.”
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