A SOUP kitchen in Leamington has been helping some of the town’s poorest residents for 25 years.
Helping Hands Soup Kitchen recently took the reigns from Leamington Christian Mission, a charity which began in the winter of 1991 after Steph and Geoff Devlin felt compelled to help people sleeping rough.
Since then the soup kitchen has grown into one of the district’s largest homeless support networks and has extended to help vulnerable people in the area.
Along with offering food every Thursday and Friday evening on Newbold Terrace, the charity helps organise rehabilitation, clean clothes and even supplies furniture to those who cannot afford their own.
After realising how many people were homeless in Leamington, and how little support they were receiving, Steph and Geoff Devlin knew they had to help.
The couple started by offering soup and sandwiches to those on the streets five nights a week, often until 2am.
They say they will always remember the first people they helped – three friends sleeping rough in an old shelter in Jephson Gardens. It was the middle of January and the trio were sharing a mattress and a blanket to keep warm.
Steph, who is now 66, and lives in Leamington, told the Observer: “We just wanted to help because they were literally blue with cold. It broke my heart seeing them like that.
“They completely lacked trust, but when we showed them we cared they eventually let us support them. After that there was no going back.”
The couple soon found themselves working seven nights a week for months on end until more volunteers came forward. This led to the Devlin’s forming Leamington Christian Misson.
Later that year they bought two old ambulances, converting one into a soup kitchen and the other into a place where the homeless could sit, warm-up and enjoy their meal.
For years the charity offered an invaluable service to the town’s poorest people and strove to go above and beyond the call of duty – even arranging for some of the homeless to join them on family holidays. They also started offering food to those who could not afford their own and donated more than seven tonnes in food parcels each year.
One of the events which stands out most for the couple was discovering a man they had helped off the streets turn his life around.
Steph said: “I was on the steps of Coventry Cathedral watching my sister receive her degree when an old man grabbed my hand and said ‘I just want to thank you Steph for what you have done.’
“I didn’t know who he was and he told me we had helped him when he was addicted to heroin. He had turned his life around and now was collecting a degree of his own.
“It just shows that a little bit of help can really turn lives around and create respectable people.”
The couple continued their work as Leamington Christian Mission until a year ago when the warehouse they used to store items was demolished and the land sold.
Knowing it was too big a task for them to start from scratch again – both being age 65 at the time and grandparents – they reluctantly shut the charity’s doors.
Three months later a similar service was opened by Lianne Kirkman, a 42-year-old local nurse who had volunteered with Leamington Christian Mission.
Under her lead she formed a new charity called Helping Hands, which has continued to thrive, running a soup kitchen twice weekly and distributing donations of clothes and furniture to those in need.
Lianne – who is also mum to two young children – first discovered the Christian Mission charity when she and husband Patrick needed to use their food parcel services. At the time the couple were in a lot of debt and struggling to stay afloat.
Lianne told the Observer: “I have always worked with homeless people ever since I was in my 20s and was a detox nurse. That gave me an insight into helping people with addictions.
“I first got involved with Leamington Christian Mission because Steph helped me. I had been having food parcels and was suffering from depression. She encouraged me to help behind the scenes sorting donations.
“Doing that helped me out of my depression and I felt like I had something to get up for.
“Steph really helped me and rebuilt my confidence, and now I feel I can help others.”
Lianne has made some alterations to the way the charity is run, with one of the notable changes being the opening of a new drop-in centre on Gloucester Street. Although it is still being renovated, she hopes it will soon be a hub for homeless and vulnerable people to visit during the day.
There is also a brand new logo to go with the charity’s new shop, showcasing a hand in a heart which designed for free by Snitterfield company Glued.
Lianne also plans to increase the number of nights the soup kitchen – which attracts around 25 people each evening – runs to three times a week.
She and Patrick even opened the charity’s doors on Christmas Day, forgoing the family festivities to supply meals to those who would otherwise do without.
And the couple’s two children – Jude and Maci – were more than happy to help out and ‘loved’ working with their parents.
Despite Steph and Geoff no longer running the charity they still regularly volunteer and are pleased with the direction it is going. They say unfortunately some of those they first helped 25 years ago are still coming to use the kitchen as they struggle to battle their addictions to drink or drugs.
Steph said: “Lianne is doing a wonderful job and I am behind her every inch of the way. Her and Patrick both have the real heart you need to run a charity like this.
“It’s sometimes such a small thing that we do, but can make the world of difference to someone in need.”
Search for Helping Hands Community Project on Facebook to donate or find out more.