Meet Helen Sloan from Storehouse

Interview with Helen Sloan from Storehouse

I recently met with Helen and her daughter Christine to talk about Helen’s work with Storehouse.

Q: I know you got the MBE a few years ago, before you started Storehouse. What had you been doing up to then in the community?

A: For many years I had been involved in youth and community work on a voluntary basis, initially in East Belfast before moving to Bangor in the early 1980’s. Joining First Bangor Presbyterian Church I continued with that work helping set up an English language class, and through that I became more involved and working with and supporting the ethnic minority communities in Bangor and beyond, so really the MBE was for ‘services to the community in North Down’. I rarely use my MBE title but it can be useful on occasions, as a way of getting a bit more ‘clout’ for the people I am trying to help!

Helen talked about the very difficult situations she finds herself in at times and recently having to break up a fight between refugees at an agency office in Belfast. She has a very loud, authoritative voice when she needs it! Local politicians often send refugees and other people in difficult circumstances to Helen, knowing she will do all she can to help them.

Q: What prompted you to suggest Storehouse?

A: It was really when I was dealing with an ethnic minority man I was trying to help who lived in a shared house in Bangor. He was 5th in line to use the toilet and the shower. He was being bullied and had no food whatsoever. My church had a food initiative which offered assistance to groups such as FASA, Simon Community and Women’s Aid but were unable to help this individual.

I contacted Francis Rutledge of Christians Against Poverty (CAP) to ask for help for this man. They were running a food bank in Bangor but were finding it difficult to get volunteers. Without hesitation Frances brought round bags of food for this man and the 3 of us just stood and cried and praised God for answering our prayers. It was then I promised God I would never let people He sent to me to go hungry again.

I was aware of some organisations in our area trying to help people in dire straits. It was through the Bangor Inter Church Community Initiative (BICCI) that I became aware of organisations in North Down who were trying to help people in dire straits. People like Margaret Bailie and others from West Church who had been running The Abba Trust (it had always been their vision that the Abba Trust be a church wide initiative) for 20 years, Celia Matthews of St Vincent de Paul (who had a food ministry) and CAP.

We called our first meeting and 65 people turned up. From that initial meeting the idea of Storehouse North Down was established and opened its doors in September 2012.  To begin with Storehouse North Down was linked with Storehouse Belfast, but we are now independent and are in the process of becoming a charity in our own right.

Q. Lots of people think Bangor and North Down is a very affluent area. How do you see it on a daily basis?

A: Yes, the Gold Coast! However, through our partnerships with CAP, SVP, Simon Community, community workers and many other agencies we see lots of families who are in desperate circumstances. Some think it’s only people on benefits who need help,  but GPs and social workers often send us families who have had a drastic change in their circumstances, maybe through illness or loss of employment, and they can’t pay their mortgage, car payments or put food on the table for their children. They can be classed as ‘work poor’, a group which has been identified more widely in the press and the news in recent months.

Helen told me about the case of a young couple who had just got married, taken on a mortgage and a car and then their working hours were cut in half. They could only meet their mortgage and insurance with great difficulty and had no food at all in their cupboards. Another young couple had a disabled child and were told he hadn’t long to live and had given up their jobs to be with the child. He lived for another 6 months and both have had terrible trouble getting employment again and have been quite destitute. In both these cases Storehouse North Down have got alongside them providing food and support to help them get through.

Q: What have you learned from your experience with Storehouse?

A: Not to judge people. I have learnt to listen and stay quiet long enough to listen. But also to be tough and not let the wool be pulled over my eyes! My previous job experience has enabled me to know when people aren’t telling me the whole truth or are trying to take advantage of our system. I can give it out when I need to!

I have also learnt how to manage people. With over 100 volunteers at Storehouse, all with very different personalities, it can be challenging but equally rewarding to see so many people come together in a common cause.

I’m also very humbled by the generosity of individuals, shops and businesses throughout North Down. For example ASDA became our partner allowing us to have collection days and support us with generous donations. For this past   two years BICCI has organised a Christmas Day lunch for a number of vulnerable people in our community and all thanks to the likes of  Primacy Meats, M&S, Tesco, Sainsburys, ASDA and Lidl, it didn’t cost us a penny!

Q: What’s God saying to you about the future?

A: We are in the process of applying for charity status but it’s a long, involved process and so many other organisations are doing the same thing. We continue to pray for that and ask others to do that to.

I’m so aware the food hampers are like a sticking plaster. Yes they are a vital aid to life getting better for so many families and individuals but I keep asking God to show me what else we can do. We see so many families and individuals brought low by addiction, lack of employment opportunities, mental health issues etc. I just keep praying we can all be united, everyone working together – churches, agencies, and charities. So much more could be achieved.

One of the developments has been to provide children’s clothes and nursery equipment. We get a lot of requests for that sort of thing. We don’t advertise as I don’t want to spoil things for other charities. The other day we got asked for size 9 shoes and clothes to fit a child age 7.

Sometimes we can hand care of families on to other churches beyond North Down. We’ve worked with Frank Sellar in Bloomfield Presbyterian and with Shore Street in Donaghadee. At times we have to let families go, whilst we continue to pray for them, and hand them over to God.

People ask me how do I sleep at night. Well I sleep at night knowing I have done my absolute best. I can’t do more and God knows that. At times it can be frustrating too. I worked with a family recently for 9 months. We got them housed, the children into schools with new school uniforms and the family really well set up. Last week I discovered the Mum has taken 3 of the children and moved to England, leaving her husband with the remaining children here. There’s a kind of righteous anger comes into play.

At Storehouse we have a very good Steering Group and at times they have to ‘rein me in’ with all my ideas and energy but often they are completely right and I see that after a little while.

Everyone including myself who work at Storehouse North Down do so on a voluntary basis and all our donations and income goes towards feeding those most desperately in need.

Thinking about the future and additional funding for Storehouse, I have taken on a cosmetics business new to Northern Ireland, to run as a social enterprise and 25% of the money made on that will go to Storehouse. It works through personal recommendations and ‘parties’ in homes. There is an extensive catalogue and ordering is made on-line. I’m happy to meet with small groups in church or in private homes to demonstrate the wide range of pure, safe and beneficial products. That’s another way people can help.

Interview by: Elizabeth Porter, 5th September, 2014.