Lives are being transformed as part of a pioneering project based at a historic Anglican church in the heart of a County Durham village.
The work to help homeless people rebuild their lives is one of the schemes running as part of the health and well-being Breathing Space project at Michael and All Angels in Witton Gilbert, North Durham.
Breathing Space was set up when the church received Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) finance towards a £200,000 project to widen use of the 800-year-old building and the adjoining nature reserve.
Work included repairs to the building to host Breathing Space, which involves the church in partnership with various organisations working with a range of people. One such partnership is with charity Changing Lives, who work with people experiencing homelessness, addiction and a range of other problems. This provides an community engagement opportunity for men on their programme to help to manage the wooded nature reserve.
Projects have included clearing out the stream running through the dene and improving the paths. One of the men to benefit from his involvement is Joe Turner, 60, who lost his home in Brandon, near Durham, eighteen months ago when the Bedroom Tax came in.
He has been helped to get back on his feet through the partnership between Breathing Space and the Changing Lives organisation.
Joe, who lives at a Changing Lives accommodation, said: “I could not afford the Bedroom Tax so I ended up losing my home.
“When I became homeless, I could not take in what had happened. I had worked as a landscape gardener for 25 years and suddenly there I was without a home.
“I went first to the Salvation Army for help then to Changing Lives and started working at the church in February 2014.
“Being involved in the work has made such a big difference to my life. It gets you back into the community and gives you the chance to meet people, whether it be people walking their dog or out with the horse or people sitting down at the church over a coffee.
“It has given me confidence after what happened to me. You cannot look back, you have to look forward, and being involved in the project helps me to do that. It is good to put something back into society and it is good for the church as well.”
Joe met Bishop of Durham the Right Revd Paul Butler, during one of his recent prayer walks through the diocese, whose route took him to Witton Gilbert. Joe said: “I got to shake the Bishop’s hand. He seemed a canny lad and it was good to see him out in his diocese.”
The Breathing Space project, which has been running for three years, is part of the Diocese’ priorities on poverty and reconnect churches with communities in order to grow congregations.
Breathing Space Project Officer Gillie Boggon said: “The project is having a big impact on people’s lives, not just on their physical well-being but on their spiritual life as well.
“We do get some of the men taking time to sit in the quiet of the church. Some of the men had faith before but lost it and the project is helping them to reconnect with the church.
“It a recovery project so it is not always easy for them but it is giving them a breathing space and helping them to seek out ways to be more positive and find a life that is different to the one that went before.”
Vicar the Reverend Canon Caroline Dick said: “The project has established itself now and is good both for people using the dene, who have commented on the improvements, and for the men.
“I think they appreciate being in such beautiful surroundings and out in the fresh air and also being able to put something back into the community.
“It also gives them the chance to relax and take stock of their lives. At the beginning and end of the day they are in the church and they appreciate the opportunity to be somewhere still and quiet.
“When we had a Christmas party for them, they asked me for a blessing which was a very special moment for all concerned.”