Community lifelines: Volunteer 'superheroes' feed Hackney people in need

Volunteers pack bags with food.

Volunteers Ziggy Noonan, Carletta Gorden, and Michelle Dornelly sing along to Whitney Houston as they pack bags with food at the Community Food Hub in the Wilton Estate Community Centre, April 6, 2020. Michelle started Children With Voices 25 years ago, but since lockdown the demand for her food hub has grown exponentially. She distributes food donated to her organisation to some of the most underserved estates in Hackney, a lifeline to many low-income families or vulnerable residents who are shielding - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

A grassroots organisation set up to teach positive life skills to Hackney children has been helping feed hundreds of people throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

Michelle Dornelly is the driving force behind Children With Voices' Hackney Community Food Hubs (HCFC), which was set up to reach "hidden Hackney communities".

She told the Gazette: "If you live on an estate you are hidden, you are forgotten about and you are hard to reach. So we were going out specifically to reach those people."

The food hubs are run by volunteers and have supported over 600 people every week since March, providing over 50,000 free meals, including 200 meals to local homeless hostels every Thursday.

Jah-Shantaye in her school uniform.

Jah-Shantaye, left, is 15 years old and she volunteers alongside her mother Carletta at the Children With Voices Community Food Hub. In 2016 she was awarded a Jack Petchey Achievement Award for her work in the community. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

The organisation says demand for the service increased over Christmas to 800 people per week, and continues to rise. 

Michelle said: "Deprivation and poverty in the community was bad before but the pandemic has highlighted and made the situation worse."


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As well as providing food, dedicated volunteers find out what essential items are needed, such as clothes, spare paper, pens, buggies and toys. 

Volunteer Sami stands wearing an apron and gloves.

Sami was living above the Community Food Hub on the Wilton Estate, saw what was happening below and came down to lend a hand. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

The organisation then appeals to the community for donations.

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"We put that out in the community and the community are amazing," Michelle said.

She adds that despite Covid creating a negative situation, it has helped bring people together. 

Michelle explained: "You work, you come home and you are in your own environment, but this has allowed people to step out of their comfort zone and to explore the deprivation of what is going on.

"And it isn’t so far away from you, people weren’t seeing that. Now people are actually seeing the struggle and it's real.

"Without the pandemic, we would still be separated but this is just drawing us closer together just to support those that need to be supported."

Grace Chapman started volunteering to do bike deliveries last year and was "totally inspired".

Volunteers prepare bags for pick ups and deliveries.

Inside the Wilton Estate Community Centre hardworking volunteers of all ages prepare bags for pickups and deliveries, April 13, 2020. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

She said: "Everyone coming together no matter who you are or what background - it was so brilliant.

"Without Covid, I wouldn’t necessarily have put my hand up to volunteer like this."

The organisation is now fundraising to secure a permanent home. Michelle believes a building will help HCFC reach more people as the service expands. 

At the moment she must store non-perishable foods in a lockup outside of the borough, far from the communities she helps.

 

People line up outside a Hackney estate.

Queues are now often around the block at the main food hub on the De Beauvoir Estate in Hackney, November 12, 2020. As the year came to a close, need in Hackney shot up. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund 

"When we did close one of the hubs and we said to people: 'What will you do?' 

"The response from one guy was: 'I will just hang around at the supermarkets until after a certain time and I will go in their bins.' Another said to me:  'I will go back and beg on the streets,'" Michelle said. 

A volunteer carries a bag of supplies to her bike.

Outside the original food hub location in the Wilton Estate Community Centre, volunteer Yolanda loads up her bike to make some deliveries while an elderly man waits to be served, April 13, 2020. As well as distributing food from set locations in Hackney, volunteers also deliver packages by bike or car to vulnerable families across the borough. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund 

She says her volunteers go above and beyond, not just by delivering food but by also providing emotional support, guidance and advice when people need it.

"We embrace everybody, we go out and feed the homeless, trying to fill the gap and whatever needs we see, we're on it. So, we're becoming like superheroes. 

"When it's raining I feel sorry for my bike riders and they have got their hats and their jackets and they are still peddling in the wind and the rain. I love them, they are so dedicated and with that we are a force to be reckoned with."

Volunteer Grace adds that they are "so much more than a food bank": "We are a community hub and that word community runs through everything that we do."

Michelle Dornelly pulls a trolley of non-perishable foods from her lockup to her car.

Michelle Dornelly pulls a trolley of non-perishable foods from her lockup to the car outside, August 6, 2020. Without a permanent location, Michelle is forced to store the excess food and drinks in the lockup in the next door borough, far from where her community food hubs distribute to the Hackney communities. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fun

The community hubs run from De Beauvoir Hub, 85 Downham Road, on Mondays and Thursdays from 12-3pm;  at Prideaux House Hub, 10 Church Crescent, on Tuesdays from 11.30am-2.30pm; and at Gascoyne Hub, Gascoyne Road, on Wednesdays from 2-4pm.

Reach out to Children With Voices for support by emailing childrenwithvoices@outlook.com or ringing 07402 499 742.

To support HCFC, visit https://www.gofundme.com/manage/hackney-community-food-hub-christmas-appeal

The Hackney Gazette has teamed up with photographer Grey Hutton to tell the stories of organisations and people helping their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Grey Hutton’s Community Lifelines project visually uncovers the vast and diverse networks of assistance, community foodbanks and services ensuring people in need in Hackney do not go hungry, without care or support.

People line up outside a Hackney estate.

Queues are now often around the block at the main food hub on the De Beauvoir Estate in Hackney, November 12, 2020. As the year came to a close, need in Hackney shot up. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund 

Woman steps into a crowded cupboard.

Michelle Dornelly, founder of charity Children With Voices, tries to make some space in her living room that has grown overcrowded with donations over the last 8 years, September 21, 2020. Like so many community leaders in Hackney, her voluntary work has taken over her life while demand for her food hubs grows every week. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund 

Young girl in a pink coat stands next to a food trolley.

A young girl waits patiently outside the Community Food Hub on the De Beauvoir Estate while her mother collects supplies before Christmas, December 24, 2020. Throughout the Christmas period, the Children With Voices Community Food Hub donates presents to struggling families alongside food and essentials. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund 

Volunteers prepare to deliver vegetables.

Inside the De Beauvoir Estate Community Food Hub, volunteer Tash Paul prepares fresh vegetables while another volunteer gets ready for a bike delivery and collections are organised at the door, December 7, 2020. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund 


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