RIGHT when Arklow needs them most, two volunteer-led community support organisations have found themselves without a building and forced to cut-back, and even cease, what they do to help those in need.
his week Arklow Friends of the Community announced it was to disband as the building it uses, the Silver Band Hall, is to be demolished on June 15. They had been using the venue as a donation point and centre to help support an estimated 70 Arklow families in need. Just over half of these families will continue to be supported by some of the volunteers, with Arklow’s Bridgewater Shopping Centre temporarily donating a vacant unit. But volunteers say they do not have capacity to help more without greater resources and space.
This news comes after Arklow Community Action Resource Centre revealed it has had to cut-back on donations of essentials, food deliveries and domestic violence support groups, after their building was sold. They say they have 130 families on an increasing list of those in need of food donations weekly, but that there is never enough food for all of them, and neither are their enough volunteers to distribute.
Shiela Busher, Co-Chair of the Arklow Community Action Resource Centre, set up the organisation with Leanne Walker more than 12 years ago to help vulnerable people in the Arklow community seek help, information and resources for their issues.
Shiela has worked in and been involved with the community for nearly 20 years and said: “It has changed since Covid, and since we lost our building it’s really changed.
“We were doing so much work at the time. We had a domestic violence group, a women’s group, men’s group, and all these groups now don’t have a centre to operate from.”
Following the loss of its building, the centre began to rent the old Crosscare premises on Collins Street in Arklow for “an affordable rent”.
They worked there for more than a year until the building was sold, then they moved to Paramount Arcade on the Main Street, which was turned into apartments.
After that, “there was really no base to work from, and because we have no centre, the food drop ins have taken over, and we try to help people through the phones, but it’s not the same – the phone is constantly ringing.”
The main issue for the centre is that there is no property in Arklow that the volunteer organisation can afford according to Shiela.
Prior to Covid, every second year the organisation would set up a fashion show and coffee mornings each week to raise funds for the cost of rent, however with social distancing regulations, all fundraising events were stopped.
“We get no Government funding, we might get a Council grant of €300, but we don’t get much at all and due to Covid we had no way of fundraising,” she revealed. “We just couldn’t afford to rent – so we’re even looking for a house to start back the groups.
“When we had a building, it allowed us an opportunity to organise courses like computer skills, aromatherapy and meditation classes. It was a great service to the town and it’s needed now more than ever.
“Even if we had some type of base we could stock up on the donations we are given but currently we can’t.”
Seven years ago the centre was contacted by FoodCloud to transport wasted food from Tescos and donate the food to families and people in need.
“We started to do this a couple nights a week, and now we’re up to five nights a week, doing the food drops to people doors,” said Shiela. “When I say wasted food, it is out of date food, but because of EU regulations it’s not really out of date, so we have anything from 10 to 30 crates coming up on an evening.”
These crates are distributed to some of the 130 families on Shiela’s list who need food every week, mainly in Arklow town.
“There’s never enough food to serve all the families a night, so you would miss some people, and they would have to wait the second week,” said Shiela.
“We generally have 16 volunteers on the five nights, so we could have one or two volunteers each night, and the food transfer normally starts at seven in the evening. On an average you could get about 15 families done on a night, depending on the quantity of food available.”
Volunteers involved with the food drop are not given the contact information of the families, only their home address for delivery.
“Volunteers go out in the cars, and then deliver the food to the families,” said Shiela.
“We get reports from volunteers that the children of the families wait at the door to bring in the bags of food because they get cakes and treats – they just love seeing the bag coming.”
The centre also used to get donations of clothes, furniture and toys from local businesses, but now has limited space to store these and limited time to distribute.
“It’s a lot of work, but it needs to be done,” stressed Shiela. “I used to do this five days a week, however I reduced that number because I didn’t want to burn out.”
Friends of the Community was formed three years ago, right before the pandemic hit, and up until recently were providing support to an estimates 70-80 families. They received notice a few months ago about the intended demolition of their building and decided to disband, though Hilary Sharpe, Chairperson of the group, will continue their work.
She has worked as a volunteer in the community for the last 30 years and decided to rebrand the organisation as Friends of Community to continue supporting families in need.
“We’re very new, and we’re only in our infancy but I knew there was a niche there in the community, that the work still needed to go on, because there is still families who need support.” said Hilary.
“At the moment I can only support about 40 families, previously we were supporting maybe 70 or 80, but that is just not doable at the moment.”
She added: “They’re families genuinely in need of support. Kids need clothes and food constantly to grow, and if someone is constantly asking for support or help you can’t ignore that – no mammy is ringing a person late at night unless they are worried about their family.”
Through the volunteer organisation food, clothes, and baby supplies are often donated to the families.
“Sometimes I’m even given a fridge, or freezer, or even cupboards, but I don’t take those items unless I have an immediate release for them,” said Hilary. “At the moment, I’m only able to do food two to three nights a week because the volume of food I am receiving currently is not great, but I am hoping that will pick up once we get settled.”
Hilary is currently working in a vacant temporary unit in the Bridgwater Centre and said: “I want to thank the Bridgewater for their kindness, which has allowed me to continue the work. This support encourages me to keep going.
“I am so grateful to people, people have been so kind to me, the messages I received, and the support of goodwill, and when you’re getting that response from people, you get that push to motivate you.”
At times like this, Shiela from the Arklow Resource Centre remembers why she and Leanne set up the centre all those years ago.
“People from disadvantaged circumstances just didn’t know where to turn to, so we were kind of like a referral service – we got the information out to families, and people we thought needed help,” said Sheila.
She added: “I have a great team and I think it just gives something back to the Arklow community, and volunteers experience the gratitude from those in need, and it gives a purpose.
“We can’t save everyone, but a little help makes a difference and you don’t realise until you’re doing it how lucky we are to have a roof over our heads and access to food.”