Article of the week: One bag at a time

19 February 2022

Pat Thorpe introduces Simon Hope to a fruitful community venture that anyone can get involved in

Article of the week: One bag at a time

NELSON Mandela once said: ‘We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.’ While this is a lovely sentiment, the power to make a difference often feels far out of reach in everyday life. What can we really do? It is this very question that led a corps and community in Norwich to discover an exciting and fruitful ministry – the Care Kitbag.

Pat Thorpe and her husband, Richard, were drawn to Norwich Mile Cross Corps and became soldiers in 2017. Hailing from a Church of England background, they have long fostered a deep love for people. That care and compassion led to the birth of this fast-developing homelessness venture.

It all started in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when Pat’s father, Maurice, was hospitalised following severe chest pains. While lying in A&E at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, he overheard another patient explaining to her doctor that she was experiencing homelessness. A true man of God, this touched Maurice deeply and he spoke of it often after he was discharged. He grappled with one question the most: what could the family practically do to make a difference?

The first step they took in figuring out a solution was prayer. This led to what Pat calls a ‘God-led idea’.

‘We thought, what if we could provide a bag of basic toiletries and things, which could be accessible at the hospital,’ she shares. ‘That way, if someone who was experiencing homelessness came in, they would at least have a bag of items to take out with them. And we could put in a message of hope, a prayer and a list of organisations that could help them.’ Thus, the Care Kitbag ministry began.

The new venture could only work if it was entirely community driven. The first hurdle to overcome was sourcing the bags themselves. Buying enough bags alone would have required an intense bout of fundraising, before even thinking about the items to go inside. Thankfully, the Norfolk Knitters and Stitchers, alongside some particularly crafty members of the corps, came to the rescue. By upcycling unused duvet covers, fabric scraps and other odds and ends, they started producing a steady supply of drawstring bags.

The next step was to get the essential items to go inside. This is where the community had an opportunity to shine.

‘Everybody was so embracing of the idea,’ Pat enthuses. ‘The Women’s Institute (WI) are also running with it because they say it’s something they feel they can do.

‘We are very aware of the fact that these items cost money. When you start putting flannels, soap and toothbrushes in, it can add up. But you haven’t got to do it on your own. Some people team up to buy items together. And there’s no time limit, so some people get a bag and add the odd thing every now and then. The nice thing about it is that anyone can get involved.’

Some people even chip in by providing lots of one specific item. One corps member has a knitting group at her sheltered housing complex that focuses on making lots of hats and scarves to go in the bags. A member of the Norfolk Knitters and Stitchers is also donating her speciality craft: Kevin the Hedgehog. The knitted critters are sold for £1 in the charity shop and all funds go towards filling kitbags.

Once the bags are full, it is time to give them out. Distribution first began at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. ‘There was me floundering,’ Pat adds, ‘trying to find who I needed to get hold of and who I could talk to. But the chaplaincy is always a good place to start – they thought it was a great idea!

‘The big thing we went for is that the bags need to be accessible 24/7. We were so concerned that they’d be locked in somebody’s office. So the area we’ve got is accessible to the Red Cross, A&E and mental health services, which means the bags are ready for anybody who needs them.’

After setting up at the hospital, the ministry quickly expanded. Care Kitbags are now being given out through St Martins Housing Trust, Pathways, the YMCA and Shelter.

Over the Christmas period, the team again got thinking. Pat was struck with the harsh reality of Christmas without a home or family. ‘We took some bags to St Martins and asked what happens there at Christmas. The lady explained how they try to give everybody a gift and we came away thinking that there must be something we could do. But it’s an expensive time of year; people already have presents to buy and everything’s gone up in price. We didn’t feel like we could ask for another load of bags.

‘That’s when we had another God-given idea: we called it Buy a Bar. We asked corps members and the WI to simply buy and wrap a 200g bar of chocolate and write a message of love on the front. I got back to St Martins and asked if 75 bars would be enough and they said it would not only cover both hostels but also the emergency bed hostel.

‘It’s something that people felt they could do. It cost less than £2 and showed people that we care. We don’t always know what to do, and we can’t change things by ourselves, but together we can make a little bit of a difference.’

In the end, the team took 147 bars of hand-wrapped and signed chocolate – weighing almost 30kg – to St Martins, delighting the staff and guests.

‘During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the Care Kitbags have given the corps and friends an opportunity to care as they put these bags together,’ says corps officer Major Paul Robinson. ‘When people come to the corps for help, an immediate supply is available, enabling those in need to be supported.’

A member of the British Red Cross at the hospital spoke about an encounter they had: ‘A gentleman experiencing homelessness came in asking for help and a hot drink. I took his details and arranged hostel accommodation and he left with one of your bags. He was taken aback by what was in it. It’s really good to have been able to give him something “special”.’

Sadly, after igniting the spark of the ministry, Maurice was promoted to Glory on 6 October last year. But, by the power of his passion, concern and care, he leaves behind a beautiful lasting legacy that continues to make the world a better place, one bag at a time.


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