Jill Holder is the Volunteer Coordinator at Shieldfield Forum Community Café, Shieldfield.
Hannah Marsden: Can you tell me how the café all started?
Jill Holder: About six years ago lots of residents were saying there was nowhere to go in Shieldfield. The pubs had been turned into private flats and the social club had been knocked down to make way for student accommodation. At one time everyone would have their weddings, christenings, anniversaries, and birthday parties in the social club. It was a space where people would meet and families would get together, but we couldn’t do that anymore because there wasn’t anywhere to go. So the idea for a community café came out of a group of residents working with local councillors. I became involved about four and a half years ago, when I had leaflet put through my door inviting volunteers join in. I started going to meetings held at Shieldfield Art Works (then Holy Biscuit). The Liberal Democrats, specifically Stephen Psallidas, helped us liaise with the council and eventually get this building. In the beginning there were quite a lot of people at the meetings, but once we got the café some of the people stopped being involved because their main interest was in starting something off.
Hannah: I think you need that with new projects, people who bring the energy to get it off the ground but then you need people like you who will sustain it and keep it going.
Jill: Yes, as a team of volunteers we are a very small, but we have found our own way, with the backing and support from the council, and gradually built ourselves up step by step. This approach has allowed us to grow in confidence and I think that is why we are still open after four years.
Hannah: It’s so important that a café like this is led by people in their community and it goes at a pace that suits the people involved.
Jill: Yes, and it is important that the café reflects something of this community. There is a gentleman who is a regular in the cafe, Mr. Armstrong, who is a keen historian. He helped me to make a display of photographs of Shieldfield in the past which people have found very important. It’s a great conversation starter between some of the older regulars and new people who come in who are interested in the history of the neighbourhood. The photos are now displayed with pegs so people can take them off and show them to each other, so it is a fluid display which can move around and spark memories and new conversation all the time.
Hannah: What need in the community does the café address?
Jill: We know there are many people living locally who are lonely and isolated. Most people who have joined the café, as a customer or a volunteer, have come in by themselves. Now that they come to the café, those people don’t feel isolated and lonely. The café has helped people make friends and they meet up outside the café hours. We have a group of café regulars who come at regular times and sit in their regular seats! We know it can be difficult to get new people to come in but when they do, they are welcomed so they feel comfortable and they come back.
Hannah: What have you learnt so far? Do you have any advice for similar projects starting up?
Jill: I think we have learnt to be very strong and not be pushed into to doing things too quickly. For example, people were encouraging us to open 6 days a week or to have a chiller with sandwiches and cakes in, but we didn’t want that because we knew it wouldn’t work straight away. We’d rather make a sandwich for someone when they come in, make it fresh, because we are not the kind of place that’s going to have lots of passing customers. Doing our Food Hygiene Certificates gave us more confidence because the council come and check you and make sure that we are meeting the correct standards. It would be very hard to open a café like this without the backing of your local council, because the rent and business tax is very, very high. You just wouldn’t be able to sustain that because you don’t make enough money to cover those overheads. We are grateful for the backing we have had so far. Also, you need volunteers to start off with. The volunteers play a crucial role in building a community around the café keeping it going.
Hannah: I know there has been some difficult times when the volunteer numbers have been low which means that regular volunteers like you must take on extra shifts. Is that sometimes a struggle?
Jill: Well, sometimes if I’m tired, I might not feel like it, but as soon as I come in I take a step back and start to listen to people talking and I feel really, really good. You realise you are making a massive difference, and the café is making a massive difference. All you have to do is come and open the door and the people come in and they make it. I think they would find it difficult if the cafe wasn’t here now, they would miss it so much. It just has to stay.