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Making a real difference in the UK’s poorest town

St Barnabas’ Church in Clarksfield is in central Oldham, officially the most deprived town in the UK. The church is located in a district designated as the most deprived 0.2% in the whole of the EU: some refugees and international new arrivals actually encounter greater deprivation after moving there than they did in their home country.

Vicar Paul Monk looks after St Barnabas along with nearby Holy Trinity Church in Waterhead, and notes that the parish has, “…an astonishing level of need.” The area is very multi-cultural: just 10% of the population is ethnic British, with a majority from Pakistan and around one in five from Eastern Europe. There are also many relocated asylum seekers from Africa.

In such an area, the work of the St Barnabas Community Project, established by the Church and run by the vicar, a community worker and a team of enthusiastic volunteers, is making a huge difference to the lives of many people living there.

The project encompasses many strands: it oversees the largest youth club in East Oldham and provides a breakfast club in the school holidays, which replaces the free school meals that many of the area’s youngsters rely upon during term time. It also offers craftwork and a place of safety.

Much of the project centres around good food. The community café, which opens two days a week, doubles as a food bank for the increasing number of people who need it. Much of the food comes via FairShare, which distributes surplus stock from the food industry. The remainder is donated by local cafes, nearby Tesco, and the congregation of the Church. 

“We manage the donated food carefully,” says Paul, “which means the Church can hold a series of huge, free barbecues for the community, which are great for building trust.”

There’s also a clothes bank which is used particularly by the area’s younger parents, who not only find new clothes for their children but donate those they have grown out of.

A jobs club gives unemployed people help, advice and access to the internet — an invaluable tool for job-seekers. 

In addition, ‘Billie’s Friends’ is a self-help group providing a safe and supportive environment for female substance abusers. 

“Our Community Project has made a staggering difference to this community,” says Paul.

“Especially significant is the role it plays in fostering inter-racial harmony among the many ethnic groups living here. There are probably ten different nationalities at our Thursday Mums ‘n’ Tots group, for example.”

The Phone Co-op supplies phone and broadband services both to the church and to the nerve centre of the whole operation - Paul’s vicarage and his ever-ringing mobile. 

“Being able to communicate reliably with our parishioners, volunteers and staff is vitally important,” he said. “And we need the internet not just to communicate with each other but for the job club to use, for example.

“The Phone Co-op has been brilliant from the moment we started using them. The service is so dependable and, on the rare occasion we do have a problem that can’t be solved at our end, it’s great to be able to pick up a phone and speak directly to a real person straight away. 

“It’s important for us to be able to use a supplier we know shares our own values.”