At first sight, I'd be forgiven for believing that I'm walking into a charity just like any other. I've been invited to Tickle The Taste Buds, an organisation in Middlesbrough which provides food and all kinds of support to homeless people and families in crisis in the local area. They support diverse groups in need, from those elderly people with no real human contact to those trapped in a spiral of drug addiction. I hear a heartbreaking story about local children who had been told by their parents 'Christmas doesn't happen for everyone, every year'. The organisation provided toys and one of 50 Christmas hampers containing enough food for a month, and set up a free 'sweet shop' in their centre for vulnerable children, only for the children to realise that Christmas did happen for them after all. It's a story that I get the impression they've told before, that they're delighted to have made that particular difference, that each person they help has their own story.
Run by mother-and-daughter Wendy (who is in her 70s) and Melanie, it is staffed entirely by volunteers. They run Wednesday sessions which normally provide a two-course meal for 40-50 people, although sometimes they've had over 60, and for some it will be the only hot meal they get that week. Their premises are an old church community centre which they are gradually renovating. A pool table, table tennis table and carpet bowls are amongst the games which are available in a typical session. For some it's likely to be the only chance they get in any given week for recreation.
I'm here for a barbecue, which is a special event and has required more organisation. They're grateful to a major supermarket chain which provided the bread free of charge. They have a local farmer who donates potatoes (I'm proudly told they aren't getting unsold stock or food that isn't fit for sale, but some of the best) and a nursery which gives tomatoes. Much more comes from Fareshare.
It begins to become obvious that something is different about this charity. They're all volunteers. Some of those who they help struggle with self-esteem issues or serious self-harm. They're always on the end of a phone for those who need them: if the phone rings at 2am, it's obviously because someone needs help. If there isn't enough food to hand out, they go to the shops and buy more out of their own pockets. Somehow this feels like what charity should be all about.
Many modern charities have become dependent upon receipt of funding, whether from government or ever-depleted pots of money available from grant-making trusts. Others rely upon consistent, co-ordinated fundraising. These people need £5,000 per year just to cover their rent and electricity. It's suggested to them that there might be a community funding pot available to apply for. "They gave us a grant once before", they explain, "and we want to at least pay some of the money back before applying for anything new". It's a refreshing attitude in a world where so much seems to be about take, take, take. Finding that £5,000 plus the costs of running their organisation is not an easy matter, but they won't take liberties.
Melanie was rushed into hospital just 48 hours earlier, with all of the symptoms of having had a stroke. Here is the first time, beyond the Bible verses on the wall, that it's obvious that they're a Christian organisation. They'd all (including, it seemed from what they said, the medical professionals) believed it was a stroke. They tell me that the church prayed, then within hours Melanie's condition was improving and it became clear to everyone that it wasn't a stroke after all. Coincidence? Their entire lives appear to be packed full of just such coincidences. I'm told a story of how they had been given supplies of baby formula. They accepted it, without a clue of what to do with it, then at the very next session a heavily-pregnant woman in significant need turned up. Melanie describes this as "God providing before we even need to ask for it", and describes her not-stroke with "I don't care what they say, I've got a God that heals". Agree with her or not, her faith is impressive.
It strikes me that, in this area at least, they've understood something that the church has forgotten. Church attendances in many areas dwindle whilst the churches focus upon pseudo-political campaigns to influence government policy; their partners Teen Challenge - who do much of the work with drug addiction - tell me about one homeless person who walked miles to sleep outside the church so that he wouldn't miss the service. They didn't say in as many words, but I'd be astonished if attendance at their church was in decline.
Melanie's eyes light up as she tells me how committed the volunteers are. She tells of one who's just come off five consecutive 12-hour work shifts in their day job. "And yet she's still here today to help out!" She speaks of her volunteer proudly as though that's something remarkable, and I'm not saying that it isn't but somehow I know it would be pointless of me to point out that she herself had only just been released from hospital. They're all putting other people before themselves. It's their trademark.
The barbecue begins, and I'm struck by the different needs being catered for. They're sticklers for etiquette, which surprises me but in a positive way. They prompt unsaid pleases and thank yous, insist on people waiting their turns, not coming back for seconds until everyone's had chance to eat, and I'm even admonished when I finally join in for not taking any salad. I'm not keen on salad.
It seems there are many other things which are worthy of consideration. They feel foodbanks can be a little inflexible and unresponsive to individual needs. I'm sure that foodbanks do a lot of good, but I can see the benefits of Tickle The Taste Buds' less structured, individualised approach. They work together with various organisations - both public sector and charitable - to achieve their aims.
Their methods of providing everything they can from amongst themselves, and praying and relying upon God to provide, are perhaps not the approach which we're used to in our 21st-century society. Yet they're into their 17th year, and still expanding. It's been a thought-provoking and inspirational visit. There's something about these people, something which says a lot about the nature of charity.