How the Harrogate Hub aims to help those in need in the famous spa town
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 January 2018
Community volunteers are offering help and healing at the heart of Harrogate, as Jo Haywood discovers
After a three-year reign as ‘the happiest place to live in Britain’, Harrogate was chuffed to be rechristened ‘Happygate’. It was a catchy quip that handily summed up the generally prosperous North Yorkshire borough, best known for its historic spa, packed calendar of festivals and host of upmarket shops and restaurants. But did this quick brushstroke summation paint an accurate picture of everyday life in the town?
Of course not. Not everyone in Harrogate is prosperous, not everyone has a busy social life and not everyone has disposable income for treats and luxuries. In other words, not everyone in Happygate is happy.
A survey of social needs – Minding the Gaps – carried out by St Mark’s Church in 2014 revealed that social isolation, heavy drinking and self-harming among children were all major concerns in Harrogate. More recently, the Harrogate Advertiser has reported on ‘high risk’ levels of drinking among a quarter of all adults in the district, and fuel poverty in 3,750 Harrogate and Knaresborough households; Harrogate Foodbank has recorded an alarming increasing need; and IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services) has logged 150-200 requests a month for support from people affected by domestic abuse.
These issues are, of course, not unique to Harrogate. They are, sadly, a reflection of what’s happening all over the country, but their effect seems all the more brutal and jarring when juxtaposed with the town’s Happygate image.
While many might simply shrug their shoulders and say, ‘it’s a shame, but that’s life’, Carol Bracher asked a more important and, as it turns out, life-changing question: ‘What can I do to help?’
After much cogitation and soul-searching, she set about creating Harrogate Hub, a network of volunteers offering support for people feeling weighed down by life through loneliness, abuse, addiction, financial turmoil or health issues. In fact, whatever ails them, someone is on hand to offer a sense of safety and belonging within a caring community.
The Hub, in Oxford Street (opposite the Early Learning Centre), is now open four days a week, staffed by around 40 volunteers, all trained by Carol to listen with care and empathy.
‘If each person just helps one other person, then that’s worthwhile. It’s our job to build people up and give them purpose,’ she said, as we talked in a small, comfortable meeting room away from the light, bright, welcoming reception area. ‘I was shocked when I moved to Harrogate and saw the real need – the multiple needs, in fact – that so many people are dealing with.
‘The Hub is my vision, and I was driven to build it, but I’ve known from the start that I couldn’t do it alone. So, I started to gather people together; people with their own gifts and skills.’
One of these gifted, skilled individuals is executive director Jo-Ann Hughes, a former teacher who now runs the Hub, endeavouring to raise awareness (as well as the £80,000 or so needed to keep the charity ticking over each year) while strengthening connections with the town’s myriad churches, the council and other third sector service providers.
‘We all need to step up and do our bit for the next generation,’ she said. ‘We also need to recognise that there really is strength in numbers. Each of the 56 churches around Harrogate is trying hard for its own neighbourhood, but if they join together, as we are actively encouraging them to do, they can become quite a force to be reckoned with. A force for good.’
The Harrogate Hub is a Christian charity, but it doesn’t discriminate against anyone on any terms. And no one is ever turned away because their difficulties are too daunting or complex to deal with – a volunteer will always help them find a way through.
‘People from all walks of life, all ages, all classes and all religions have problems they can’t work through on their own,’ said Ella Green, a charity officer at the Hub specialising in marketing and fundraising. ‘We ensure that everyone is listened to. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way we can directly help our community. We’re not replacing or duplicating any existing services, we’re simply linking resources and offering to guide people to the help they need.’
Chimmey Nguni is one of the growing army of volunteers giving up their time to work at the Hub. She’s so passionate about the charity that’s she’s halved her paid hours in a nursery so she can dedicate more time to the cause.
‘I had thought of looking for volunteering opportunities abroad, but then I realised people here need help, right on my doorstep,’ she explained. ‘I honestly didn’t know there were so many people suffering here in my own community.’
Lucy (not her real name) is just one of the many people whose suffering is already being alleviated by the Hub. She has many and varied needs, some physical, some psychiatric and some linked to her dysfunctional domestic situation, but all are helped by having someone at her side, listening and offering advice and support.
‘Nothing is too much trouble and they always have the time,’ she said. ‘Most importantly, they are very, very good at listening. I look forward to coming in for a coffee because no one ever makes you feel stupid and you always feel very safe.
‘I still have very bad days, but I know I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without the Hub. I spend a lot of time on my own, but this place gives me a community. The volunteers here are very special – and very much needed.’
Lucy is just one of many people dealing with largely hidden turmoil in homes around Harrogate – turmoil the volunteers at the Hub are determined to draw out into the open and deal with.
‘A lot of people currently feel abandoned,’ said Jo-Ann. ‘They feel they are living a hopeless existence but, together, we can help them to flourish.
‘This is not about blame, it’s about stepping up and helping our community to self-fund its own healing. First, and rather crucially, however, we have to acknowledge our needs here in Harrogate, and share the responsibility for meeting them.
‘If we can make the Hub work here, we can replicate it in towns and cities across Yorkshire. If we get the model right, we can make a major difference, ensuring each community can heal itself.’
If you would like to make a donation, volunteer or find out more about the services on offer at Harrogate Hub, visit theharrogatehub.org, call 01423 369393 or pop in to 39 Oxford Street, Harrogate, HG1 1PW (the kettle’s always on).