You know; I don’t think there is a better way to connect with your neighbours than a good old-fashioned chin-wag and a cup of tea. “The idea of the chill and chat is brilliant. It gives you a chance once a week to meet people, especially if you live on your own,” said one of the regular visitors.
Last summer, Michelle Stone set up a weekly cafe that alternates between Oving and Tangmere, so she could bring the community together. Michelle has a small team of volunteers who assist her with running the cafe. It seems that the volunteers appreciate the cafe as much as the community. One of them said, “As a volunteer, I enjoy meeting the local community and providing a service.” This kind of community innovation is by no means new to many communities that are lucky enough to have such an organised support system. But, what is unique is Michelle’s understanding of the mental health needs of the whole community; “I work with clients of all ages, and all of them feel so lonely. It is not because they don’t have friends. It is something else.”
Michelle started the cafe off the back of her work as the director and counsellor of Positive Routes to Wellbeing, which began before the pandemic as a free counselling service for local people. Adults, teenagers, and children have all been helped by Michelle’s dedication and hard work. And she’s hit the ground running in terms of how many different avenues of support she has been able to maintain, even through the pandemic. Since Covid began to affect our lives, loneliness and its many causes have been exacerbated
, greatly – especially for those who have had to shield or isolate themselves continuously. Counselling gave people an outlet, and the cafe provided a space where people could start to break down the social stigma around talking about loneliness and mental health issues. The cafe runs on donations and offers a safe communal space where people enjoy talking, sharing food and drink, and getting to know other local services and supports on offer.
Michelle is so proud of how the community has come together and supported each other in so many different ways. The environment is friendly and busy in the mornings. People talk about all sorts of things, says Michelle; “It may be having a laugh and a joke together, or it may be supporting each other, such as some of the older generation offering help to a new mum; or talking to me about how they have been feeling […], or letting me know that something really important has happened for them this week.” Michelle has also teamed up with UK Harvest, a food waste redistribution service. They provide the cafe with a food pantry, where people can either donate or receive food for a £2.50 donation every Tuesday morning. This kind of community action is a welcome bundle of good news for the community. With many people struggling these days, sometimes it’s helpful to know where you can find support for food or mental health. Michelle has brought other organisations to the attention of the community.
The cafe also welcomes the local police community officer, Age UK, and support from the Hamilton Services. Sometimes it’s just nice to know that there are people there for you if you need to reach out. This kind of community hub could see a rise in mental health and cultural resilience. Sharing Michelle’s success is just as important, as there might be people in the Oving or Tangmere area who would like to join these mornings – or start their own. Michelle has a background in teaching in both secondary and special educational needs schools, as well as being the mother to a 12-year-old boy. Through teaching young people and learning more about their mental health issues and their needs, Michelle understands that early intervention is crucial because 75% of mental health issues present at age 14. Michelle says that “through early intervention at primary school, these children will be able to cope and manage their symptoms. Waiting until the young person is exhibiting signs is too late. We should be doing something sooner.”
Early intervention is key to Michelle’s approach, even in the cafe where she holds children’s mornings. When Easter arrived, Michelle restarted Relax Kids sessions which are aimed at children with high levels of energy who struggle with the regimented structure of school days. This seven-step program starts with playing games, and then winds down to reading stories with lots of blankets in a calm environment. Michelle says, “Young children are not meant to sit down for such a long time. This is a part of why some children struggle with the change between primary and secondary. They want to explore and do their own thing.” With so many pressures surrounding us, it is no wonder there has been an increase in mental health issues in young people – not to mention parents and teachers as well. Michelle has used her fifteen years of experience as a teacher and mother to inform her current work with the community and young people. Michelle says that “It is about finding ways to manage rather than fix; that is what therapy and parenthood are about – being good enough. It is OK to get it wrong. The first step is breaking down the stigma around talking openly about mental health.”
There’s no doubt that change is happening already, one step at a time. Michelle Stone, who has so much motivation and strength behind her, has made a real difference in the community. When new people come to the cafe looking for help or to listen to their stories, Michelle makes them feel welcome. “The café is, after all, all about making connections to combat feelings of isolation and encourage community resilience.”