Thursday, 24 December 2009

A True Christmas Story

In this pilgrimage of life some people find the journey very difficult. Loneliness, homelessness, addiction, broken hearts and ruined relationships are some of the paths which people take. These ways aren’t marked by yellow arrows but by pain and chaos, sadness and despair. All too often there are self righteous pilgrims who don’t experience any of these problems who leap to judgement. Theirs is the far superior way.

Pilgrims who cope with life or pilgrims who don’t, we all need respite sometimes. On Camino we find this in the Albergues along the routes providing welcome shelter and warmth. For other pilgrims they can be few and far between but they do exist. This is a story about one of them: the Ace of Clubs. No one is quite sure why it is called that. I reckon it is because as far as clubs go it’s the best.

It was started over 10 years ago and operates out of an old parish school behind the church in Clapham. It has a small staff of only 3 people. Nicola who runs the Centre and provides advice. Sarah who works part time hours and does more than a full time job. Manuel who cooks and drives. The Ace of Clubs is the only Centre in London open 365 days of the year. It operates a non exclusion policy. Everyone is made welcome. No matter the problem they will try to help. Last year they provided 15,000 hot meals and 3,500 one to one advice sessions. People can use the facilities every day for as long or as short a period as they wish.
People like Frank, who at the age of 45 finds himself homeless. He was made redundant from his job, got behind with his rent and lost his flat. Frank’s problem is he just can’t cope. With the help of Nicola at the Ace of Clubs he’s found a room in which to live. Slowly he is rebuilding his life. Or Jane, at 35 already addicted to alcohol and drugs. Her children were taken into care making her sad life even more tragic. With support she’s managed to become clean and sober. The Ace of Clubs is helping make arrangements for her to start spending time with her children.

But this story isn’t about the people who use the Ace of Clubs. Rather it is about the people of Clapham which has amongst the most expensive properties in London and the poorest housing estates. It turns out many local people were aware of the Ace of Clubs. We didn’t know how proud they were of it. That’s because the organisation has remained fairly anonymous since it began. All you can see is the queue that forms just before opening. For 10 years it has raised the money needed to run the Centre through gifts and donations and a Charity Shop.

In November however the money ran out. Donations had dried up. Usual sources didn’t respond. The effects of the recession. Sarah who works part time doing almost everything including raising money was making herculean efforts. But the future looked very bleak. Closure was imminent as there were no funds to pay the bills or the salaries.
Nicola who now runs the organisation and Sarah are two value driven and impressive women totally dedicated to keeping the place open. A few people got together to help them. The results have been remarkable.
First the cash strapped religious order, the Redemptorists who run the Parish and started the Centre stepped in with a life saving grant. Then the first task was to make the problem public. Letters were written to all local churches and organisations. A public appeal was made. Applications were sent to past donors.

Local schools and churches have always been generous in donating food. The rate increased. Two elderly ladies travelled two hours to hand in two bags of shopping. But the Ace of Clubs needed cash as well.
Donation envelops were circulated. The letter inside had a simple message, “ Help or we will have to close.” The response was quick in coming. From many different directions. A man handed in £5000 preferring to remain anonymous. Some people gave a few pounds. Others obviously gave everything they were going to spend on Christmas presents. Envelops were put through the letter box. A chap who uses the Centre donated everything he had. Each day that passed saw the people of Clapham and beyond responding. One lady heard about the appeal and phoned her former employer, Harrods. They visited almost immediately and offered practical help. They e-mailed all of their employees. Donations started to be handed in. Goods to be sold in the charity shop, promises of further assistance.

In the few short weeks since the Appeal was launched £64,000 has been raised. The Centre now has breathing space to raise more funds and plan for the future in a systematic way. It has been a worrying time for Nicola and Sarah but now they know the Centre is secure for the best part of another year whilst more solid foundations are laid.
The generosity of local people has been overwhelming. This evening the Centre was in darkness. The tables have been set for Christmas Lunch tomorrow. 80 meals will be served. We now know it will still be here to do the same next year. Happy Christmas Ace of Clubs.

Happy Christmas Pilgrims Everywhere!

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