Relief as future of social lifeline safe

Painting at the First Step Community Centre on Dickson Road in Blackpool.
Painting at the First Step Community Centre on Dickson Road in Blackpool.
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TIMES are tough at the moment – not least for those working in the third sector.

As councils cut back on services, more people are relying on volunteers but funding is getting increasingly difficult to access.

Which is why there was widespread relief when Blackpool Council, despite having to reduce spending by £14.1m, agreed to protect its grants to the town’s main charities.

But for people like Joanne Shepherd, chief officer at the Claremont First Step Centre on Dickson Road, North Shore, which has just received £21,430 from the town hall, additional funding still needs to be found. A £240,000 Lottery grant in 2010 runs out next year, so Joanne must find replacement finance to keep the charity going.

And not only are four paid roles dependent on that - but also the 16,000 or so people who use the centre each year.

For them, the hub is their lifeline. It provides a social life for elderly residents who would otherwise be isolated, helps others in their job-seeking efforts and delivers training in subjects as diverse as French language and gardening. as well as running a community cafe.

Community interest company Ur Potential, which offers training opportunities for young people, is also based there, while last year members of the tea club used their artistic skills to create a giant mannequin of the queen to mark the Jubilee.

Since 2011 the Claremont Park Community Centre and Egerton Road Police and Contact Centre have come under the First Step umbrella, and both would probably otherwise be now closed.

Joanne said: “We are based in an area which is in the top three per cent of deprived areas nationally, so if we weren’t here I don’t know what would happen.

“We have four full-time members of staff and a bank of 15 volunteers whom we rely on heavily, and over a year about 16,000 people come through. But we really operate hand to mouth.

“What we do is vital. We have an open door policy and with services from the council dwindling because of the cutbacks, we’re needed more than ever.”

Certainly elderly folk who go along twice a week to the centre for meals, quizzes and entertainment, would be lost without it.

Widow Barbara Swan, 73, from Bispham, relied on her friends from the centre to get her through when her husband passed away.

She said: “This place has been a godsend.

“When I found myself on my own, my network of friends here proved invaluable.”

Harry Anderson, 90, added: “This place is a second home to me. When I was in hospital recently, my friends from the centre came to visit and it made a real difference.”

And they do not just rely on others. Valerie Hughes, 74, runs a regular raffle among the group which helps pay for trips out.

She said: “Without this centre we wouldn’t be able to do any of these things.”

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