Sutton Furniture project is about much more than furniture! We live in a society that places no value on the poor. In the Western world’s eyes a good citizen is a good consumer – the ability to purchase gives people their value.
It’s a bleak picture, but a team of people from Sutton Vineyard Church are doing their bit to create a counter culture. In April 2002 they took over a struggling local charity, Sutton Furniture Project, in order to save it from certain closure. The idea had been simple: to collect unwanted secondhand furniture and redistribute it to people who, for whatever reason, are unable to afford to furnish their homes. However, most simple ideas have one other thing in common – it takes a great deal of hard work to make them successful. Success is, after all, 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The church was able to deploy an army of some 60 volunteers to engage with the project. They began by taking over and decorating the existing rented warehouse, but also acquired new office space and a van to help develop the work.
In the first year of the church’s management of the project it was able to provide high-quality furniture to some 200 local families facing economic hardship, who were referred to them by various other charities or the Borough Council. The project was already beginning to give its clients what they most needed – and that was not just furniture. They were able to offer a high quality of service, valuing each of their clients as an individual and seeking to meet as wide a range of needs as they could. So, for instance, when it became apparent that more than half of the project’s clients had young children, as a response, they decided to employ a children’s worker – the result is that they are now able to offer a range of children’s clothes, toys and baby equipment to families on low incomes.
As the furniture project’s scope and renown has steadily grown over the last couple of years, it has been able to foster much closer links with other local agencies. For example, a link with the Youth Offending Team now means that young offenders are able to work out their community service at the churchbased project.
Six months ago the furniture project was given a real boost when it received a grant to establish a work-skills training scheme for its long-term unemployed clients. It is already looking at the possibility of extending the range of these training opportunities even further in the coming year.
This year plans are afoot to rename the furniture project as ‘The Vine Project, Sutton’ in order to reflect its expanding scope and emphasis. Currently employing five part-time staff and working with some 250 families a year, it is also hoped that it will be possible to develop similar projects in some of the neighbouring boroughs.
Sutton Furniture Project is a charity that now operates at a huge profit – but a profit that is measured in social rather than financial terms. It still delivers furniture, but its real product is what the politicians and community professionals call ‘social capital’ – or, to put it simply, it provides the glue that helps build lives, build families and build the wider community.
Chalke and Change Jargon Buster
We live in a world addicted to jargon. Computer nerds, businessmen, the military, politicians, Christians – all have their own specialist language. P.D.As, C.P.As, R.P.Gs, L.S.Ps and L.E.Ps; pdf. files, low-hanging fruit, collateral damage, early day motions and ministry times – society is littered with abbreviations and ‘in crowd’ terminology. The problem comes when one group or tribe wants to communicate with another. If the Church is going to talk to the government, other voluntary agencies, social services, the NHS etc. we are going to have to become bi-lingual. Each month Chalke and Change unpacks one key phrase of community development language and explores how it can be useful to churches. This month what is ‘Social Capital’?
Coined by sociologist Robert Putnam in his book ‘Bowling Alone’, social capital is a term used to denote the fact that healthy societies need much more than adequate financial resources to make them work. Money alone builds nothing – strong community equally requires the investment of time, energy and vision, which makes the subsequent building of trust and respect possible. Social capital recognises that there is great worth in things that cannot be measured in monetary terms.
Putnam observes there is an urgent need to rediscover social capital. As he puts it, ‘Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the (20th) century.’
However, a recent Conservative green paper describing the power of social capital explained: ‘Millions of people throughout Britain serve as volunteers every week – giving time to their communities, or to the care of vulnerable people. Millions more donate money to the fight against poverty, disease or ignorance at home and abroad. Within self-help groups, millions of people learn how to recover from life shocks like cancer or bereavement. Through mentoring, at-risk children are helped to believe in themselves – perhaps for the first time. Britain’s charities advance into territory where the state or the market often fear to tread – standing up for unnoticed causes and pioneering care for people who have been failed by one-size-fitsall systems.’
It is this commitment that is the indispensable energy needed to build strong and healthy communities. The challenge to the Church is to fulfil its potential to provide a rich reservoir of this much sought after social capital in every community across the UK.
If you would like further information about the Sutton Furniture Project, ‘social capital’ or to debate the issues it raises, visit www.faithworks.info
The Faithworks Movement is a partnership between a range of organisations including Christianity+Renewal, and is also supported by a wide range of denominations and church networks.