THE FUTURE WE WANT
By Cloe Heaton
Cloe is an undergraduate student in History and Politics at the University of Nottingham. During the lockdown, like all university students, Cloe returned home, to Wigan. Back at home and seeking ways to support her local community, Cloe began volunteering at Sunshine House Community Centre. During lockdown, the Orwell Youth Prize sought to support young people to write about their experience. Cloe worked with journalist and Orwell Foundation Trustee Stephen Armstrong to write the below piece.
Considering the future we want should be exciting. As young people, we are filled with ideas and a desire to do better than those who came before. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus has changed life in unimaginable ways, and future has never been more uncertain. As humans, we are always moving on to the next thing and failing to reflect on our present situation. At a time when everything must be taken day by day the present has never been more important when considering the future we want.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, I was a university student living in Nottingham. I had made summer plans with my friends and was looking forward to my summer term. This all changed when the university had to close, and I had to move home to Wigan. It seemed as though my life was coming to a complete stop. All my plans were cancelled, and I said goodbye to friends for an indefinite amount of time. However, the pandemic allowed me a new opportunity. There is a community centre in Wigan called Sunshine House where I volunteered during the pandemic. What I learned there has brought the present into sharp and brutal focus.
To many who pass through the doors, the centre is simply a building used for room hire, but Sunshine House is many other things. A collective of groups such as the art class and writing class. Services that change lives; groups for isolated people, support for those dealing with addiction or unemployment and support for ex-offenders. Their goal is to never turn away someone who ask for help. This is so important in towns such as Wigan where options are limited. It is vital to recognise the work of these centres so that they are able to stay open and help those in our most deprived communities.
Sunshine House offers meals and shopping deliveries to local residents – vulnerable adults who had to self-isolate or were too unwell to leave home. For young people like me, it’s hard to imagine being unable to get my own food or shopping. After a week at Sunshine House, I soon realised how naïve I was. In my first week we delivered up to 40 meals each day, a number that has continued throughout the lockdown and as restrictions have eased.
Of even greater significance is the number of adults and families referred to the centre because they cannot afford food. This shocking reality has been made worse by the pandemic but is often unreported on the news. I was discussing the lockdown with a friend, who was distressed over a news report depicting America’s growing need for food banks. When I pointed out I faced the same reality daily at the centre, she seemed shocked – she could not accept our country faced as bad a situation as America. It is too common for our news coverage to focus on the state of other countries, unwilling to highlight the issues facing Britain. It breeds the perception that Britain is doing better than our counterparts. A day working at Sunshine House could show anyone that this is not the case.
For instance – recently, one of our delivery drivers delivered a food parcel to a household and discovered children also lived there. With the family having no food left, he decided to help them himself by taking them a full supermarket shop the next day. I helped out on a second delivery. An elderly gentleman called the centre and because he was unable to leave his house to do a weekly shop – we delivered it the next day. Seeing the gentleman so grateful and relieved made me wish everyone facing uncertainty could receive the help they need. The most shocking situation for me was a single-parent family of five who had nothing in their home. Two of the children were toddlers, but they had no food and even lacked nappies. I was particularly relieved when we were able to help them.
Some days it is difficult to comprehend how much help is really needed and how far we are from getting such help to all who need it. However, there are moments that are truly touching. At the heart of Sunshine House is Carol, the receptionist. Many of those who call the centre live alone and have had to self-isolate – they call to order a meal but also for conversation. This may be their only conversation of the day. Carol makes time for all of these people. She knows many by name and what menu items they like to order. It’s a service that can easily be overlooked but makes a huge difference to someone feeling lonely and isolated.
This is perhaps something that was lost in the world before coronavirus; a sense of community. I hear many elderly people describing the strong bonds that once existed in my town. The pandemic has in some ways allowed a return of old feelings of unity. In our response, we have come together to help face an unprecedented situation. In the future I want, the sense of togetherness bred by the pandemic would continue in our communities.
In depicting Sunshine House as a positive place, it makes it easy to assume things aren’t too bad in Wigan. But the centre is in one of Wigan’s most deprived communities. According to Wigan Council, Ince and Scholes, the two towns closest to Sunshine House, are within the top 20% most deprived in England. 25% of residents claim out of work benefits, far above Wigan borough’s average of 15.9%. Deprivation in Wigan is not new. It has existed for years – when George Orwell was researching The Road to Wigan Pier he stayed in Darlington Street, a few streets away from Sunshine House. On the books 80th anniversary in 2017, Wigan MP Lisa Nandy described how while Wigan has many strengths, the biggest its friendly and hardworking people, the town has been rocked by austerity in modern years. Wigan’s council has in fact received one of the worst budget cuts of any local authority in the last decade.
We have to ask why this is happening in modern Britain? In our future, we must aspire to a time where no one is allowed to go to bed hungry. Small community centres do not have the resources to tackle this alone. The struggle against deprivation is largely on a local level, and the issue is seldom raised nationally. Those not exposed to it are allowed to remain ignorant – although lockdown has started to change this to some extent.
Britain’s community centres have for too long been alone on the front line in the fight against deprivation in towns such as Wigan. It would be refreshing for Sunshine House to be free to flourish in the arts or community creativity if the need to fight poverty in their community was alleviated. There should always be a place for community centres, but they should be allowed to nurture the community spirit that has been reborn in the coronavirus pandemic. They cannot do this and serve everyone if future governments do not shoulder some of the pressure in helping our nation’s most deprived.
This was not the summer I imagined yet I am grateful for the lessons I learned. If we are to build the future we want we must learn from today. It is easy to make broad statements wishing for world peace or an end to world hunger. These grand dreams can start in reality if we make real change in our communities. I can use what I have seen to argue for a future where everyone in Britain has access to basic necessities. The deprivation in my town is deeply saddening, and I want a future where this is no longer ignored. We can choose to forget the unity bred by the pandemic and or we can use this difficult time to make a fresh start. Our community centres are already doing this job. We should empower them to show us the way.
We asked Cloe some further questions about her experience at Sunshine House
What prompted you to write this piece and who would you most like to read it?
This piece was inspired by my experiences working at a community centre in my local area during the coronavirus crisis. This was an unexpected role, as obviously no one predicted what has happened in the past few months. I began volunteering not knowing what to expect.
What most shocked me while carrying out my role is the level of deprivation that exists within Wigan. I feel deprivation in working-class communities is not reported enough nationally. I was not aware of the extent of poverty until beginning my volunteering. This is too common. Those not directly affected by poverty are allowed to become ignorant to its presence in our communities. This allows the problem to only get worse. It also puts extreme pressure on small community hubs to deal with the issue alone, while they are also facing other issues such as funding cuts. The coronavirus pandemic was another issue that could not be planned for, therefore the problem was exacerbated further. This prompted me to highlight deprivation in Wigan in my piece to possibly bring attention to the issue, as I feel our country needs to address the ever-growing issue of poverty in our communities.
I feel the experiences described in my piece are important and relevant. My biggest ambition would be for my local MP to read and resonate with what I have written, allowing it to be read by further politicians. This could have a real impact, as for once the stories of those facing deprivation may be seen outside of their communities. I feel it is to stop turning a blind eye to social issues in working-class communities. I would also be thrilled to see my piece read by my community, to highlight the amazing work of Sunshine House and draw attention to the importance of community centres. This was another huge inspiration for my piece. The work of community centres is often unnoticed and underappreciated. Yet they are vital hubs in towns and small communities where services are limited. They deserve to finally get some recognition. If anyone with the influence to do this read my work, I would be delighted.
A lot of university students, like you, were forced to return home during the coronavirus outbreak, what do you think the impact of this was and what would you have done differently?
The coronavirus pandemic cut short the university terms of students across the country. This was unexpected and cancelled many plans. I was fortunate that upon the beginning of lockdown I was able to begin volunteering at a community centre local to me, Sunshine House. However, many students were not able to secure a position and spent lockdown at home.
I feel students could have been utilised better in providing healthy volunteers. I had many friends say that they would have loved to volunteer in a similar manner to what I was doing but did not know where to go. This was while many centres and businesses were struggling to find help to stay open.
Many students also felt completely demotivated. Universities expected the usual standard of work. However, we no longer had physical access to resources such as the library and our university support network. This made completing work to a high standard difficult, not forgetting some students may not have had positive situations at home where they could work. It became increasingly stressful to complete assignments, stress which was not needed as the pandemic was unfolding.
It felt as though students were forgotten. This is a key thing that could have been done differently. Our whole lives were uprooted, with most having to move very abruptly. Yet university students were hardly mentioned by news outlets or the government. We were allowed to go home and wait for the lockdown to end. I feel this was a failure, as the skills of students could have been well utilised.