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It has now almost been a year since the global recognition of the Covid-19 pandemic and what an amazing journey it has been for the Big Difference team.

This pandemic has caused so much global devastation and misery to many and still is the major topic on the news every single day.

Having worked at Above Bar Church as a volunteer within the The Big Breakfast (TBB) team for 12 years, I had gained some understanding and insight into helping and working with the homeless sector and vulnerable people within our city. Before Covid, the Church was a place where the homeless and others used to come for breakfast every Thursday. We had between 60 to 100 people, 50 weeks a year where they could come, have a lovely cooked breakfast, feel loved by our amazing volunteers, drink as much tea and coffee as they wanted and take away food parcels at the end of it. We would also have a 5 minute optional talk telling people why we did what we did and about our Christian faith.

After that, the team had developed something called Big Breakfast Central (BBC), where guests could go after breakfast to relax and enjoy more coffee and cakes, read the paper, play games, have haircuts, receive health advice, listen to music, go through benefit forms and chat with some of the team. We worked hard to make sure the Church felt a safe place where they were loved, cared for and not judged in any way. After all we learned, and the people we got to know over 12 years, I really miss those times when we could chat with the many friends we had made and support them.

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At the beginning of 2020, as places were having to start closing down, we served the homeless in our city on the streets. From our years working with TBB at ABC, The Hazel Project and more recently Street Pastors, we had got to know where some of our homeless friends shelter. So we started taking sandwiches, drinks and just going to make sure they were ok and at least had some food. We weren’t the only ones doing this and it’s been great to see how the Street Support team has helped coordinate things more in the last couple of years.

As the lockdown was announced, the streets quickly emptied leaving just the homeless and vulnerable there. At this point, the Council got in touch with us to explain their plan to keep them safer by arranging temporary accommodation, and asked if we could help with providing food. Quickly a team formed, preparing lunches everyday, and from the start of the first lockdown we served lunches to 55 people 7 days per week while the Council provided all their evening meals. Working together with the City Council and Love Southampton (who coordinated the daily drivers we needed) we were able to play our part in making sure these guys were housed and fed and kept safe.

What we didn’t know then is that this was just the beginning...

We soon realised that Covid-19 would not go away quickly and that we would have to adapt in order to rise to the problems that were to come. As a result, The Big Breakfast (TBB) is now on hold and we have become The Big Difference (TBD). We had developed links with Fareshare over several years, enabling us to make food available each week to the homeless and vulnerable, and (for a small subscription) to redistribute food that would otherwise go into landfill - a clear win-win!

One of the biggest things I have learned during my 12 years at TBB, is that the only way to make a significant impact is through a reliable team of volunteers who consistently come and work with a passion.

You can’t be a leader if you have no team to work with you. Teams need building and encouraging, and leaders need them more than they need the leaders! What has become clearer and clearer through the pandemic is the way in which people from the voluntary sector (especially the churches) can respond quickly and flexibly as the needs change and grow. When we started this work in Feb 2020, the council looked at the voluntary sector and knew that we actually were in a great position to work together to serve the needs of the city. I believe that one of the main reasons the project has grown so quickly and is reaching so many, is the sheer hard work and determination that the teams have put in.

At this point, for the first time ever, I went to my church family at Above Bar Church and asked them if they would help me raise £10K to rent a freezer to store large quantities of frozen meals. The response was amazing and the money came pouring in from people in the church. I guess being part of a team as a loyal volunteer and helping lead, grow and run TBB for 12 years with it reaching so many in the city, gives credibility, so that people feel confident and believe in you. Through a lead from Southampton City Mission (SCM) I was introduced to UK Harvest, who were getting meals made by the Ivy Group Hotel and Bill’s restaurants. These meals were being made by the furloughed staff in order to use up their stocks while nothing was open and the plan was to distribute them to people in need through charitable organisations (which could now include us!). At this point I had no freezer, but a PR person got me a slot on the radio which led to a link to Iceland in Portswood who allowed us to store the first 2000 meals in their freezer.

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As the doors were opening, I began to see that God, who has always been with me, was now starting to lead me into a bigger plan that I had no understanding of. All sorts of people in the community were starting to work together, offering to help. I had offers from pubs and hotels to store meals in their freezers, but I really needed access to an industrial scale freezer. About 2 weeks later the head of Street Pastors, put me in touch with the head of SCRATCH who just happened to have one that had not been turned on for a couple of years! He started it up and, through more community contacts, another Christian came and serviced it. We now had a huge freezer which capacity to store at least 20,000 meals! As a result, UK Harvest have supplied us with over 50,000 meals during the course of the year and are now also giving me pies from cruise ships.

As I look back, I can only say that it is the Holy Spirit working inside me who has given me the vision, drive and passion to reach those in our city that are struggling.

As he has led me, it’s been amazing to see the work of TBD quickly evolve as the community has come together in these turbulent times to look after those in our city in most need.

There are too many individuals to name, but Church and City leaders, people within the City Council, the voluntary sector, key individuals, foodbanks and Love Southampton have all played a crucial part. Donations and support have come both from Christians and from secular organisations such as Fairshare, UK Harvest, SCM, Lidl, Aldi, Tesco, Asda,Greggs and lately Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Bookers. At the moment I am also taking with people in John lewis about how they can be involved.

What started off as a Thursday breakfast serving a community of 60 to 100 individuals once a week has evolved into a project now serving 1000’s of food parcels per month. Currently we are redistributing this food to help many other communities including the homeless, refugees, Safe Families, No Limits, Southampton Sight, Two Saints, Rose Road, Testlands Support Project, Grace’s Kitchen, GEMS, Southampton Community Connect, several churches, Woolston Sunday Lunch Club, ex offender groups, Park Life Community Cafe, the Boothe Centre and many more.

In the last few months we have had more an more opportunities with schools as well, which has now grown to 19 who are looking to us to help eliminate food insecurity for the growing numbers of their families who are in crisis. Our work to ensure adequate nutritional provision for children which is being sponsored by Southampton Magna Rotary club and Wessex Heart Beat.

We work closely with Street Pastors who are our eyes and ears in the city streets, who have an emergency prepared provision referral system to identify people facing immediate food deprivation. Working with them, we are able to help address the issue of food deprivation within the street community. Alongside our relationship with Street Pastors, we are currently developing a referral system with Hampshire Constabulary.

Recently we have also linked up with the Southampton Mutual Aid Group with whom we are now working closely as they pass on food donations so that we can work together to respond to the requests for help they receive.

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Covid-19 has had a devastating impact globally and will be with us for a while, until high levels of vaccinations can be administered and the virus fully understood. It is clear that we will have the most vulnerable in the city facing extreme poverty and financial crisis for some time to come, but TBD, with the willing help of so many in the community, is helping both to start identifying who and where we most need to serve, and to make a real contribution in addressing their needs - and alongside this we are looking forward to re-starting the Big Breakfast (in a slightly different way) once the Government guidelines make that possible.

The council have recognised the work of TBD and have commited to working with us for 2 years with a particular focus on the east of the city, where they have now given us access to a disused building, which will help enormously for the challenges ahead.

For me, as a Christian, all this work and all those organisations and individuals have come together because God is in control.

What we have seen is both a remarkable response from the community and the answer to the prayers of many people, who share the concern for people in our city who are clearly suffering.

In conclusion, this has been an amazing story of God at work. The Big Breakfast has adapted and become The Big Difference, so many in the community have stepped up to support and so God has enabled us to serve many people in need, expressing his love and care for the people of our city.

Sanjay Mall (Head of The Big Difference)



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