AMANUEL WOLDESUS: Operations Director of The Upper Room charity based in the upper room of St Saviour Church (Wendell Park)
What brought you to the area?
I started working here over 3 years ago but I've been working for charities for the last 20 years.
What drew you to charity work?
I was a refugee – from Eritrea (north-east Africa, on the Red Sea) – from the age of 14. Where I am now is because people helped me. I'm into helping people.
What is The Upper Room?
The Upper Room is an organisation that helps the socially disadvantaged in the upper room of St Saviours (Wendell Park), where we serve up to 120 people an evening meal. Last year we served nearly 25,000 meals and 5,000 take-aways. And during the day we help our guests find meaningful work. The measure of a civilised society is how you look after the weakest and, in practice, that's what we do here. But this is not an organisation to make you dependent. It's an organisation designed to help you become independent.
Your motto is "Improving lives". Whose lives do you improve? Do you have a typical guest?
Most are men, but about ten percent are women. And ten percent are Muslim and the rest are of other faiths. Most are English but we also have 30-40% from East European at the moment. Historically this area of London has a large Polish community, in the same way that parts of East London were Jewish: people travel to where they feel safe. Although we say the recession began in 2008, for East Europeans working in the construction industry it came a year or so earlier. They were the first to suffer. Some had borrowed a lot of money to get here and were poorer than when they arrived. When you have a problem like that, you can't go back. I've never seen such a proud nation. You'll find it hard to take a picture of one of them in here because there's no way someone will show his or her face to say I'm homeless or I'm struggling. We need to go beyond the façade that someone is here to sponge or scrounge. People are desperate.
How do you help them?
The entry point is the meals, which we call UR4Meals, where the UR stands for Upper Room. We say, don't worry about the food, worry about what's holding you back. The meals project helps us find out what's wrong. It's a proper meal. We sit and talk. We find out about them.
What food do you serve?
It's all donated from local supermarkets such as Sainsbury's on Askew and Goldhawk Road and Whole Foods on Kensington High Street who give us their last-day products. We also get donations from Harvest Festivals in October. Plus regular donations from our neighbours. It's five-star food. Here's yesterday's menu: vegetable soup from Whole Foods, followed by chicken pie and mixed vegetables, followed by trifle or cakes. I don't eat like that at home. Our chef, Andrew Calvocoressi, is a genius.
How do you help people find meaningful work?
Our second project is UR4Jobs. Daytime is supposed to be for work. We run drop-in days on Monday and Tuesday afternoons when we help with CVs and let people use our computers and phones. To improve their English we run ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes. We put them in touch with (employment) agencies and local companies such as Charlie Bigham, one of our supporters, who make take-away food for Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. We get all their surplus food plus they tell us about vacancies. For Prêt A Manger, we're a chosen charity for apprenticeships, and that's paid. We prepare people for interviews with counselling sessions and workshops to help build their self-esteem. And we give them clothes and toiletries, all donated. If people are unable to work, for mental health reasons for example, we refer them to the appropriate agencies.
Your website also states that you aim to find innovative solutions to intractable social problems. Solutions such as?
Our third project is called UR4Driving. It came about because we noticed that some of our guests have an offender background and once they have a criminal record it becomes difficult to get jobs. How do we solve that? We need drivers to collect our food, so if someone does 80 hours of voluntary work for The Upper Room, we will teach them to drive. It's not the volunteering that we want; we want them to get into the habit of work, the routine of getting up in the morning. They learn that people have expectations of them. If they don't get the food, over a 100 people who are counting on them are not going to eat. They learn to talk politely to our suppliers. Some people with a criminal background have a perception that big institutions are against them but they learn they're just people. One of our drivers once said to me, ‘the reason why robbery is low in Hammersmith and Fulham is because of me.’ Because we taught him to drive and opened an opportunity to interact with the community, he's not offending any more. Of all our ex-offenders, only 9% have reoffended. The national average is over 60%.
Another innovation was our free winter lectures, sponsored by Finlay Brewer, which also bring our community together. They provide outstanding topical lectures by eminent local experts, and give us an opportunity to thank our neighbours for their support. These lectures brought in generous donations and helped raise awareness of the work we do.
Your website says you do not shy away from tough situations. Such as?
We have a tough love approach. Alcohol is a big problem. If anyone arrives drunk, we turn them away with take-away food. We have had no problems in the last 3 years. We don't allow people to gather outside. We operate Monday to Friday, not the weekends because we're in the middle of a residential area and we want to give our neighbours a break. We have zero tolerance for drinking, swearing and disrespecting other people here.
Why do some people resort to anti-social behaviour?
Attention. Absolute attention. Everything they've tried has failed. Now, they want your attention. I'm going to be disruptive. I'm going to drink and now you're going to listen to me. They're saying, I've got a problem and I'm not sure how to solve it. He or she is not going to say I can't solve it. It's pride.
You offer your visitors medical checks. Does that encourage government agencies, such as the NHS, to rely on charity for essentials?
We realised that 40-60% of our visitors have no GP, so we said to the NHS mobile x-ray van, we have the people here – while they're here, screen them. Also Green Light , a mobile medical project run by Hillsong church, does check-ups every other Monday. Every six months, the TB van comes. My partner is a nurse so I know how dangerous TB can be. Anyone who wants a meal has to be screened when the x-ray van is here. It's economically smart. And nationally smart to protect public health.
Having a Christian ethos, does the charity prefer volunteers to be Christian?
Not at all. Yes, the charity started in this church (in 1990) and has a Christian ethos but it is not a Christian organisation; it is an organisation open to everyone. All sorts of people volunteer to serve meals in the evening. Or clean the kitchen. This is a five-star service and it is maintained as a five-star restaurant would be.
Is part of the appeal of charity work the challenge to fix the apparently unfixable?
No, the appeal is to fill the gap that's not served by either the private sector or the statutory sector. As a nation we need to say, this is the minimum standard we must provide. I don't mean to be anti-capitalist but the private sector will always leave a gap and that gap has to be filled by philanthropy, by the charitable sector. I think charity work is the best way to fill a gap that arises out our system. We are better if we help one another. I am happier doing that than having a lot of money.
When you're not working here, what do you do for yourself?
My 14-year-old boy is an avid football fan, so I spend a lot of time with him training and going to matches. My joy is my boy. He's an Arsenal fan and I support Liverpool. When they play against each other, and if Arsenal wins, now that's a real test of my charity.
Thank you, Amanuel. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
You can learn more about The Upper Room via www.TheUpperRoom.org.