Julie Board: How can you create something out of nothing?

Julie Board has worked with hundreds of people in Canterbury, helping them to help each other without expecting anything back. She talks to Neasa MacErlean about how she has approached this in the Women’s Institute, the Hub Cafe, the Fridge Food Bank and the Re-pair Café. (The photo shows Julie Board, right, at the Repair Café’s bike department in March this year.)

NM: How do you manage to turn nothing into something?
JB: It’s all about creating community, bringing people together from different backgrounds. When people work on a project that is when the collaboration begins: as they focus on a common goal and as they work together they become friends. And that’s where the community starts to be built up. For instance, when my children were little I set up the ‘Samaritans Purse shoebox appeal’ in each of their schools. Each child in the school is encouraged to contribute items like soap, toothpaste, and toys to fill shoeboxes that are sent around the world to children who lack resources.
This brings the children together with a common purpose. And the parents and carers meet up to organise and sort the shoeboxes before they are sent off — so they get to know each other better too. These schools have continued to support the shoebox appeal every Christmas for the last 15 years .

NM: So what happens to destroy community, something we are seeing in the US and other parts of the world now?
JB: When times are difficult the differences between people become highlighted, and people be-come frightened. When resources are seen to be in short supply, people start hoarding. They start thinking only about their own needs and become focused on how to fulfil them. Our ap-proach is to hold onto things more lightly. I think that things will work out and we will be fine. If we can help someone we will do so even when it may sometimes be costly to us in time and effort.

NM: How have you done this in practice?
JB: Well, for example, in the St Stephens area where I live there are quite a few Japanese fami-lies. A Japanese friend has set up a lunchtime English conversation and toddler group which meets on Mondays for food and friendship. I went along to help with the conversations as well as teaching the ladies to knit. We knitted squares that we sent off to South Africa to make blankets for Aids orphans. The Japanese learnt a new skill, improved their English and helped others all at the same time…..In 2015 I became the president of the local St Stephens branch of the Women’s Institute. I am an activist at heart. The WI was a very traditional group and it was a slow process to bring in new initiatives that were more outward focussed. For example, we invited Catching Lives, the Canterbury homelessness charity, to speak to us one evening. They sent two older people who had been homeless and had then been helped by the charity. They shared some of their poetry. The members could see how very easy it could be to become homeless, and some attitudes were changed by bringing them together. We have subsequently supported this chari-ty each year through sock, hat and scarf collections.

Its about having a good idea which you can present in an imaginative way so that people can get on board and run with it. One of the most successful of these was the Repair Café organised by Keith Bothwell of the Canterbury society which we ran in March this year, just before Lockdown.

How do you encourage people to become involved or to give?
It helps if you lay on something for them too. So at the Repair Café we has 16 volunteers who came and offered their services for free to repair jewellery, clothes, ceramics, bikes and house-hold goods. We provided a venue, tea coffee, cakes and a clothes swap — and that provid-ed the mechanism through which people shared their skills and knowledge, united in the common purpose of trying to save resources by fixing something that would otherwise have been thrown away. Everyone can get involved in helping in a venture like this, from making the coffee to oiling a bike chain to just welcoming people at the door.

How does the Hub Café work?
It is located in the Baptist church opposite Waitrose. People pay as they feel. All the food is re-ceived from FareShare, an organisation which uses food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The vast majority of customers coming in pay a little more than they would normally do —and that provides the opportunity for someone who is struggling financially to have a nice time. It might help someone to take their children out for a café lunch without anyone knowing they are paying nothing or very little. This was Zoe Rodda’s s idea. She created Lily’s Bistro in Palace Street, and is partnering the church with the Hub Café venture.

In addition, I had the idea of providing a ‘community fridge’ stocked with provisions from FareShare to provide free (or for a small donation) food to those who didn’t have all the neces-sary paperwork to go the Canterbury Food Bank. Or it could be that someone might just be hav-ing a difficult month and needs a helping hand in feeding their family. This was just starting to take off before the Lockdown. We continued to provide this service with free delivery via volun-teers throughout Lockdown. We have sent out 150 food parcels during this time. That really is community in action.

We are hoping in the future to extend the café to include an after school club with food and activ-ities, as well as classes on useful topics from bread making to bicycle maintenance.

How did you get to know your neighbours?
By sharing things. For instance, if I make a cake I like to share it with our older neighbours. Our neighbours know we have tools and expertise in our house and Richard [Julie’s husband] is very good at fixing things so we are often asked to help or for our advice. Being available – to listen and to give people your time is also a good way of building community.
During the Lockdown we set up a challenge day to help raise funds for charities which had lost out on the London Marathon. Our neighbours were invited to do any challenge they liked in order to raise funds for their own charities. And we offered to sponsor each event as well. People po-go-sticked, ran, walked, cycled, did a gym session, did karaoke and knitted. The knit-a-thon alone raised £450 for Christian Aid and the whole event raised over £1500 for many different charities. All socially distanced but everyone had a good time and it bought our neighbours to-gether at a difficult time, which many said they appreciated. For us it involved some time and or-ganising.

What are the first steps in getting to know your neighbours?
Well, Christmas cards are good. At Christmas and Easter we go round with cakes and mince pies and Easter goodies. Through Lockdown we would knock on people’s doors and let them know we were going shopping and we would offer to get things they needed. It really is about be-ing interested in people. Most people have some great stories to share about their lives and ex-periences if you have the wish to listen.

How far could this community generosity go?
People could be a bit more open about sharing their houses — inviting a foreign student to sam-ple a traditional English Christmas, for instance. Our own lives have been so enriched by sharing our home with foreign students refugees and homeless people.
If everyone does their bit it all adds up — but sometimes you have to be the first person to start. As the first person you are often seen as taking a risk, but whenever we have done this things always seen to turn out fine. For example, I had the idea of writing a recipe book to help raise funds to educate Afghan girls after the war. We made £6,000 from a dinner and sales of the book, and many girls were given a chance of going to school who wouldn’t have been able to without these funds.

Do people feel better off for helping?
Oh yes. I have seen people whose lives have been changed by volunteering. They have gained confidence and new skills, and have seen how their efforts have made a difference. Everyone can do something, there is always a need for someone to stand at the door and say hello and wel-come.

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