Northern Soul and People’s Powerhouse are continuing our partnership to share good news stories about businesses, people and communities coming together in the North of England during the COVID-19 crisis.
This week, we chat to Sam Turner, fundraising and communications manager at Back on Track, a Manchester charity that enables disadvantaged adults to make lasting, positive changes in their lives. The organisation works with people who are going through recovery or rehabilitation, having been through problems with homelessness, mental health, drugs and alcohol or offending.
Northern Soul: Can you tell us a little bit about Back on Track Manchester?
Sam Turner: Back on Track is a local charity that works with people who’ve been through problems and want to build a new future for themselves. That includes people who have been homeless, had substance issues and who have convictions.
We have a centre on Swan Street and people come from all over Greater Manchester and we run all kinds of activities including training courses, one-to-one guidance and stuff for people to just to enjoy and boost their well-being. We also have a café and catering project called Swan Kitchens. It’s all about training people up and getting them some work experience. People can volunteer in the café and we also have paid roles running outside catering. Since it started, more than 50 people have gone to paid work. It also reduces food waste because we use food that’s considered surplus by supermarkets. Our motto is ‘food with a social conscience’.
NS: What was the original response?
ST: When lockdown first happened we had a lot of things to deal with all at once. People didn’t know what was going on and they were relying on us for information about the coronavirus. In particular, it was a stressful time for people living in hostels who were finding it hard to stay safe and maintain social distancing.
We set about contacting everyone and then stayed in regular communication with them by phone. There were countless issues with housing, benefits, food and so on. For a lot of people, we were their only source of information. As one person said: “It was the only support I had. Some days the only person I’d spoken to. It meant that Back on Track was still thinking about me and care about me”.
Between March and July our team made well over 1,000 welfare calls. As time went on, we found a lot of people were being affected by isolation and anxiety, so we had to do something about that as well. Our Swan Kitchens team responded by providing meals to people in Manchester most in need.
At the start of lockdown vulnerable people were being moved into special accommodation to keep them safe and a catering operation had to be set up incredibly quickly. So, we kept our kitchens open and our team worked tirelessly until the crisis was alleviated, by which point more than 2,700 meals had been distributed.
NS: What challenges have you faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?
ST: The biggest challenge was keeping our community together at a time when we weren’t allowed to physically meet up. Back on Track is all about creating a community, so it was a massive challenge for us.
Well over 80 per cent of the people we work with have mental health problems and for many lockdown was really tough. Often, we were the only contact they had during the week. We started up a newsletter (called Staying on Track) which turned out to be the highlight of the week for a lot of people. We sent people things to do and started a remote reading group.
Then when we had a bit of breathing space, we started getting people connected. The pandemic has really shone a light on the digital divide. Much more has gone online now so people who aren’t connected have suffered the most. So, we’ve started a digital inclusion project, providing people with tablets so they can join in with Zoom sessions and use the internet. Getting the tablets was the easy bit, though. Sorting out data is much trickier.
ST: A lot of charities have suffered financially because of lockdown with fundraising events like runs and quizzes being cancelled. That goes for us, too, although we’re lucky to have received a steady stream of donations.
We were hit harder by lost trading income. Last year, the Swan Kitchens had 451 bookings and the income generated enabled us to take on four disadvantaged people as paid staff and there still was a surplus to reinvest in the organisation. Following the March lockdown, all of that trading just suddenly stopped.
NS: What does the loosening of lockdown restrictions mean to Back on Track and how will you approach these new challenges? What does the ‘new normal’ mean to you/for Back on Track?
ST: We were delighted to be able to open up our centre again in the summer and start seeing people face to face again. For now we’re running a mix of smaller groups, outside activities and online groups. We’re being really careful with social distancing and we’re making improvements to our centre to minimise the risk.
One big challenge is relaunching Swan Kitchens at a time when there are fewer events and meetings. Rather than shared buffets we’re concentrating on individual lunchboxes and we’re looking into all kinds of new trading ideas. For example, we’re going to be trading at markets, starting at Levenshulme on October 3 and we’re going to sell Christmas hampers of ethical products. In fact, the number one thing we’re asking people to do for us is consider using Swan Kitchens in the next six months. It’s done so much good and it’s there for people in the years to come.
NS: What’s the most positive moment/thing you’ve experienced during the crisis?
ST: We have some great people working with us at Back on Track. One of our patrons is Mike Joyce who was the drummer in The Smiths. He wanted to do something to help out at a difficult time, so he suggested raffling his platinum disc for The Queen is Dead. We knew it was a brilliant prize but we were all totally blown away when the raffle raised over £21,000. That’s going to make a massive difference at a time when our work really is needed more than ever.