My name is Amanda Simmons and I live with my husband. I manage the Corner Coffee House in Green Lane, Dagenham, where we offer affordable refreshments for all. We’re a charity organisation and all of our staff are volunteers. We started up seven years ago due to a need for a community space in the area and our ethos is that anyone is welcome. We want our café to be a gathering place where people can come and connect with each other.
The lockdown has had a considerable impact on the Corner Coffee House, as it progressed quite quickly from being a rumour to becoming an actuality. We had to shut the café down with only a 24-hour warning on the 17th March.
However, throughout the pandemic, we have become the main source of information for some of our customers, as they weren’t reading the government guidelines and weren’t even aware of the virus. They were just carrying on as normal. So we have been giving them basic advice, such as keeping two metres away, wearing a mask and washing your hands.
Personally, I’m more concerned now that the lockdown restrictions are easing, as I am worried that people will stop taking the necessary precautions. I can only continue to remind my customers to keep staying safe because the dangers are still present.
A lot of our customers are vulnerable in terms of mental health issues, disabilities and homelessness. Hence I decided to create a buddying scheme during this pandemic where my 15 café volunteers have each been partnered up with one of our vulnerable and regular customers. Every week, the volunteers either give a phone call or send a good old-fashioned letter to one of our customers. We also bake biscuits and deliver free hot food with a personalised note to our vulnerable customers and we have been working with LBBD to make this possible.
I decided to create this initiative, as, while many people have hopped onto Zoom, this isn’t the world that my vulnerable customers live in. Some of them don’t even have smartphones. It’s really important to create accessible ways of connecting, as one of my customers recently revealed to me that she doesn’t know how to read or write and that one of her neighbours has been reading out our letters for her. It’s something that we may not have ever discovered before the lockdown.
One of our other customers told us that she has placed our letters to her on her mantlepiece and whenever she’s feeling anxious, she looks up at it and it reassures her that we’re thinking of her.
Over the years, we have witnessed many lives transform due to the sense of belonging that our café space offers. One local resident had left work due with a recent health diagnosis. However, she discovered our café soon after and has made many friends due to her frequent visits. It has been a life saver for her, as it has stopped her from being alone all day.
We have also provided food for funerals for those in our community. A little while ago, one lady dropped by to our café and told us that her husband had just died and that he was due to be buried in two days. She asked one of my volunteers if we provide refreshments for funerals and although they said that we don’t, after I was informed, I felt really bad. She passed by the shop an hour later, so I ran after her and said that I would love to help her out. She burst into tears and wouldn’t stop thanking me and said that we had lifted a weight off of her shoulders. It has been three years now and we have still stayed in touch with this lady. In fact, she is one of our customers who we have been regularly writing letters and delivering hot meals to during this pandemic.
We have also been a support system for our customers’ daily issues, one of whom came into the café one day to tell us that he didn’t know where his wife had been for a week. She had fallen on the street and was taken to a hospital by an ambulance but he didn’t know which one. He didn’t have a mobile phone and so he had no way of contacting her. I decided to call all of the local hospitals and, thankfully, we discovered which hospital was caring for her. When we entered her hospital room, she looked up at him in bewilderment and said, “you’ve found me!” It was worth every effort bringing them back together.
Eventually, this old man passed away, but his wife and son weren’t in a fit state to arrange his funeral. So we decided to help host his funeral and made sure that his wife was able to get to it.
This is why we opened our café. We want to make a difference in the area we live in. We want to provide a support system for people, regardless of whether we’re in a pandemic or not.
As the lockdown restrictions are changing, at the café we have also been considering ways of adjusting our ways of contacting our customers. However, it is also extremely important for us to consider our vulnerable customers who won’t be able to return back to ‘normal’ with the rest of us and how we can cater to them too.
When we come out of this lockdown, I think that our relationships with our customers will have changed drastically. They’re more like friends now. Our bond is greater than a two-metre distancing measure. Our bond is greater than a pandemic.