The future of a valuable community resource is under threat if funding can not be secured.
The Westway Community and Wellbeing Centre, in Caterham, has reached the end of a three-year financial package from Tandridge District Council (TDC) and needs to find other means of supporting the services it provides.
(The Westway Centre, Caterham)
Until 2019, the council-owned building, originally named the Douglas Brunton Centre, was used as a resource for the over-55s. When TDC started looking at alternate ways to deliver this, the community rallied to keep the centre open, and a group of people began the process of forming a charity to take over the running of it.
With TDC’s initial backing, the building started its new life as the Westway Centre in October 2019. New manager Claire Richards set about opening it up to as many people as possible:
“We’ve achieved a huge amount with the money we’ve received from TDC and other small grants so far, but our biggest challenge now is further fixed funding. We gained charity status in April 2020, but at less than three years old – a big milestone in terms of bidding for grants – we’re limited as to what’s available. We’re discussing a new building lease, but we also need to cover running costs. There’s been a lot of talk in national and local government about supporting preventative working, which is what we do, but we need somebody to put the money there. We’ve set up a GoFundMe page in the meantime, and we hope donations will buy us more time.”
As a charity, they are legally obliged to keep three months’ reserves in the bank, a figure that has risen sharply due to the current energy crisis. If new funding isn’t found quickly, the centre may be forced to cease operating in December.
It has been suggested their current financial situation might have been eased if they had closed and furloughed their paid staff (the equivalent of 3.5 people, the rest are volunteers) during the pandemic, but Claire says shutting the Westway wasn’t an option:
“Yes, we would have built up almost a year of reserve money by doing that, but I don’t think any of us would look back and say we did the wrong thing. By staying open we were able to help so many people.”
And help they did. As well as transforming into a Covid vaccination centre in November 2020 (NHS workers, backed by logistical support from the Westway, gave 76,000 jabs over the next year), they shopped, collected prescriptions, checked on vulnerable people, provided Meals on Wheels and set up a phone befriending service manned by their housebound volunteers, among many other initiatives.
This work informed the beginnings of their outreach scheme. Claire explains that helping people with seemingly small things can have bigger knock-on effects:
“Filling out a form for somebody with limited literacy skills allows them to access things they otherwise wouldn't. Submitting an energy meter reading for them ensures they aren’t overcharged, leaving them without enough rent money and possibly facing eviction. Changing a bulb prevents a fall in the dark. And we’re more than just practical support: we’re friendly faces and people to talk to. We can engage people who are isolated, and spot other issues they might be struggling with, too.”
Back at the centre drop-ins are welcomed, whether they need food or help with something specific, wish to use the walk-in shower or washing machine, or are just in need of company.
There is a varied programme of activities, including music and exercise classes, baby weighing, retinal screening and hairdressing, with organisations such as Action for Carers, Age UK and Citizens Advice, and groups, including mental health and bereavement support, and those for people with learning disabilities, regularly on site.
Just before going to print, some positive news came through: over £9,000 has been donated to the Westway so far. Trustee June Hopkins is cautiously optimistic about their chances of keeping the centre open for a while longer:
“We’re having lots of conversations with people, including TDC, local parishes and councillors, the local authority and the NHS. There is goodwill on everybody’s part to keep us going. We don’t yet have the money we need in the bank, but we do have some breathing space and a little hope.”
The much-appreciated public donations are not a long-term solution for the Westway, but they do allow it to continue the fight for its survival. They are also a good measure of how much the centre is valued by the community, at a time when money is tight for many. The Westway is a lifeline for those who may have nowhere else to go, no-one else to talk to and nobody else to catch them when they fall. That, surely, is worth saving.
To donate, visit 'Please help save the Westway Community Centre’ appeal.