I was volunteering for a charity over Christmas 2006 where I met a lady who had been homeless for seven years. Why? Because of the breakdown of relationship with her family. For her, the impact was devastating resulting in the loss of her job, income and home.
A few days later, as everyone was making plans to welcome in the New Year, I was in a hospital fighting for my life as a result of a subarachnoid haemorrhage.
Lying in the hospital I could hear all the machines I was wired up to beeping away and I knew that something was wrong. As I tried to ask my husband and the nurses what was wrong and why they wouldn't tell me, all they could actually hear was a strangled groan. The haemorrhage had interrupted the blood supply to my brain, causing paralysis which took away my ability to speak. I was locked in. I had no voice.
Miraculously I was healed, no doubt as a result of the many prayers said for my healing - and of course the amazing neurology team at Queens Hospital in Romford.
Reflecting on how close I came to death and what I had almost lost, I started thinking about what I was supposed to learn from this experience. The lady I met had lost the things that provided security in her life, but she had also lost the things that money cannot buy - her self-esteem, dignity, respect and her voice. She had lost all hope that anything would ever change - and her story wasn't unique.
Having been given a second chance at life, I decided that I would devote the time I have left to championing the cause of the dispossessed. How? Through showing love ...
The apostle Paul is known for penning one of the most beautiful passages on love - it taught me that no matter my efforts, if it isn't underpinned by love, it is worthless. He goes on to describe that love is patient, kind, never gives up, is hopeful and does not rejoice in injustice. He concludes that love never fails.
So, when invited a few years later to launch a foodbank in Tower Hamlets, my husband Aerold and I were clear that we were not going to limit ourselves to just the distribution of food, but showing the kind of love Paul describes to everyone we encounter - which is essentially the mission of our charity, First Love Foundation.
We launched Tower Hamlets foodbank in 2010 and quickly learnt that it doesn't take much to be plunged into crisis (no money and no food). Although home to Canary Wharf, the richest financial district in Europe, Tower Hamlets is also home to some of the most deprived communities in the UK. This is a community where unjust benefit suspension or delay right through to illness and family breakdown can have catastrophic results with bills unable to be paid or food provided. Most strikingly, there is little knowledge on where to access help, and those who have found help have often not been listened to. Could you go without an income for three months? What about 6 months - or a year.... Could you cope?
In response to the stigma associated with attending a foodbank, we work to ensure the foodbank centre (staffed by a fantastic team of volunteers) is a warm, loving and non-judgmental environment where our clients are welcomed with a smile, receive a listening ear and are treated with love, dignity and respect.
To tackle the social injustice they experience, we installed a rapid intervention service at the foodbank centre, working to resolve the crisis through advocacy in partnership with organisations who specialise in welfare rights and benefits advice. We also provide support beyond the crisis, facilitating pathways into volunteering, employment and education. Any success we have achieved has been through love and support which has helped that person to develop resilience to tackle future crisis and sustainability - reducing the need to come back to us for food.
I could share stories of those who came to us broken and hurting - some of the most beautiful people you could ever meet, who have since healed and embraced the opportunity for a new start. They have begun a journey where they are learning to love themselves, regaining self-esteem, reunited with families - essentially understanding that they are able to achieve their dreams and that this is possible with a little help if they are open to it.
After a while some have said goodbye as they have secured employment. The one thing of which I am most proud, is helping the voiceless have a voice - providing a safe platform for them to tell their stories to raise awareness of the issues that surround poverty and crisis as a way of challenging prejudices. These opportunities have built their confidence and shown them the power they have to change the world.
Although my journey started before the foodbank, I am patently aware that some 8,500 people later, this could not have been achieved without the support of the amazing community of Tower Hamlets, the City and beyond through their generous giving of food, financial support or the most expensive commodity, time.
I will never forget the lady I met at the beginning of my journey - I don't know if she will ever know how much her story changed my life, and the lives of so many others. My regret is that I didn't know then what I know now to be able to help her believe in her ability to break through her circumstances...
My hope is that someone else took the time to.