24 September 2013
Open Arms for the marginalised
by Annie Carter
This project has been nominated for the 2013 Inspire awards run by Inspire magazine in partnership with us at the Evangelical Alliance.
Based in the town centre of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, The Open Arms was set up by the local Churches Together with the aim of providing a meal and a listening ear to those on the sidelines of society.
Run solely by volunteers from local churches, every Sunday evening the project welcomes anyone in need and has grown from supporting just one lone man to regularly seeing around 50 people come through the doors.
The centre has become a lifeline for many homeless, lonely, elderly and low income individuals who are offered a hot two-course meal, some groceries from their food bank and someone to talk to in a friendly, non-judgemental setting. Practical support and advice is often given as well.
Rev Marie Attwood, the minister of Ryde Methodist Church, has played a key role in kick-starting the project which is based in the church hall. She has been delighted with the teams of keen volunteers and the sense of community that has resulted from everyone working together. She said: "It's a place where visitors can feel warm, listened to and not judged. We don't preach to those who come in, but love them unconditionally. However, many do approach us and ask for prayer; they know that we are Christians."
The centre opens every Sunday evening from 5pm to 8pm, as well as Christmas day, when a full turkey dinner is laid on.
Joy Clark, a volunteer who helps to co-ordinate the work, explained how people initially heard about the project via word of mouth.
After the County Press featured a story about The Open Arms on the front page, greater interest was stirred and generous donations started to pour in. A pub landlord offered to supply homemade soup and a couple of local businesses began to bring vegetables every week. The dining room at the manse is now being used as a store room as they have been inundated with goods. Church members often bake cakes for everyone, too. "People are incredibly generous," said Joy. "When they know the need, they are only too happy to donate. It's been a tremendous journey, volunteers of all ages work together as a team."
The project has also benefited from the festival season on the island. When festival goers leave the sites, people often leave their sleeping bags, tents and other belongings. If the items are not claimed, the council allows the project to clear the sites and claim the items for distributing to those in need.
Many who come on a Sunday evening are not technically homeless but they are sofa surfers, without a fixed address. Some have a bedsit, but they come because their benefits are not sufficient or have been stopped temporarily. Joy explained: "It's difficult for them to get by on what they have. Many are very lonely."
One alcoholic lady who came to them in the early days, was very distraught and in need of support. The volunteers provided a listening ear and a safe place, and then they didn't see her for about 18 months. When they saw her again, she had turned her life around and is now helping other recovering alcoholics.Another young man who had been going through difficulties when he came to the centre came in with nothing but the clothes on his back. He had been sleeping in the recreation ground, hadn't eaten for three or four days and was in a bad way. Having received regular support and encouragement from The Open Arms, he managed to check himself into a hostel. The man got back in touch with them and said: "If it hadn't been for you, I would have been dead."