6 July 2022

Sheppey Support Bus: Helping tight budgets stretch further

Melita Day-Lewis interviews Major Lynne Clifton

People standing in front of the Sheppey Support Bus
Major Lynne Clifton with Steve Chalke (Oasis Trust), Tim Lambkin (Travelmasters) and Paul Murray (Isle of Sheppey Oasis Academy)

Major Lynne Clifton tells Melita Day-Lewis about a new mobile supermarket on the Isle of Sheppey.

How many people have had ‘bus’ and ‘bus driver’ on their prayer list? Fresh Expressions Leader Major Lynne Clifton did, and saw both prayers answered!

Sheerness Corps, on the Isle of Sheppey off the coast of Kent, is part of the Sheppey Community Development Forum – a partnership of various organisations working together on the island to make a difference to residents facing food poverty. The island is considered an area of social deprivation, with many low-income earners and few employment opportunities.

During the Covid-19 lockdown in November 2020, at a monthly online meeting, the forum discussed the high demand on food banks and what could be done to help families long-term.

‘We began to talk about setting up a social supermarket, where people pay to become part of a scheme to access more affordable food on a regular basis, and where there is dignity and choice,’ says Lynne.

‘We also talked about wrap-around care to help people with their budgeting, fuel poverty and other challenges they were facing, and about finding ways to help them release more money for their households – not knowing what was around the corner with the current cost of living crisis!’

The east of the island has little access to services for people without transport, so the forum began ‘to dream about a mobile way to take services all around the island’ and went away to look at how much it would cost to buy a bus.

At their next meeting the dream had started to become a reality – the Travelmasters bus company on the island had donated an old red double-decker to the forum.

They approached East Coast Works, a renovation company in Faversham, about making the bus ‘fit for purpose’. It could easily be done – at a cost.

‘We didn’t really have the money,’ explains Lynne, ‘but we started putting feelers out to various businesses, organisations and charities, and the forum partners, including The Salvation Army, said “What can we give to make this happen?”

‘Our divisional headquarters put a donation into the pot and so did lots of other organisations. I did a sponsored walk and raised several thousand pounds that way. By September 2021 we had our bus – completely kitted out – and hit the road!’

'God's provision has been incredible'

Every bus needs a bus driver and, at a time when there was a national shortage of HGV drivers, a retired bus driver from the community, Mike, volunteered his services.

‘That was a massive answer to prayer,’ laughs Lynne. ‘Mike didn’t want to work full-time anymore but wanted to give something back to the community one day a week. He’s been brilliant! It’s remarkable that we found someone we didn’t have to pay in the middle of the HGV driver crisis.

‘In fact, God’s provision has been incredible at every stage of the journey so far. Mike was due to go on holiday and we didn’t have a replacement. He thought of someone who was delighted to have been asked, so now we have a substitute driver as well. What a faithful God we serve!’

A bus isn’t the only vehicle that has been given to the project. A refrigerated van picks up the fresh produce from the Morrisons distribution centre the day before the bus goes out and follows the bus the next day to keep replenishing supplies.

‘Feeding Britain kindly donated the van,’ explains Lynne. ‘I drive it for the pick-ups and another volunteer drives it on the day we go out with the bus.’

A mobile social supermarket and support hub

The Sheppey Support Bus – with a new white look and the statement ‘Helping tight budgets stretch further’ on the side, as well as the logos of partner organisations – started operating fully in the first week of November.

One day a week it visits four stops, including the two most remote areas, Warden Bay and Leysdown, as well as Minster and Sheerness.

Members of the social supermarket pay a monthly fee. For £28 a month a family receives 20 items of ambient produce every week – items that can be stored at room temperature, such as pasta, sauces, beans, tea, coffee and toiletries. A single membership of £14 guarantees individuals 10 ambient items a week.

‘That’s the minimum they’ll get,’ enthuses Lynne. ‘Morrisons gives us masses of fresh food. Most weeks I collect a pallet of fresh food from the supermarket, so members have as much of that as we can divide between everybody. Chiquita, which has a warehouse at Sheerness docks, gives us 300 bananas a week.’

As well as the social supermarket, there is a support hub on the upper deck of the bus.

Partners standing outside the Sheppey Support Bus with a Morrisons supermarket banner
Working in partnership: Lynne says the project is better able to meet the needs of the community with ‘some joined-up thinking’

‘Some of our partner agencies come on board the bus regularly, including Barclays Bank employees offering budgeting support, community wardens, the probation services officer, a fuel and water adviser and volunteers from Sateda, a domestic abuse support charity,’ says Lynne.

She adds: ‘The bus has wifi, so partners who can’t release people to be on the bus every week can be contacted about questions and referrals, such as Christians Against Poverty, Citizens Advice and the Department for Work and Pensions.

‘We have ideas to develop the support deck and help people save money in other areas: we want to get Quit Smoking nurses on board and there’s a man who wants to help people with digital inclusion, so they can apply for jobs online.’

Lynne emphasises the joy of working in partnership with other organisations and that they are ‘stronger together’ and better able to meet the needs of the community with ‘some joined-up thinking’.

Being in the right place at the right time

The bus helps people facing all sorts of challenges.

Lynne explains: ‘One woman said she was worried about what she thought were ghosts in her house and asked if we could do anything about this. I got hold of the Church of England diocesan deliverance ministry team and they made an appointment, came over and together we went to pray in her house.

‘Another woman was walking along the road where we had just pulled up the bus. I said, “Hello there, have you heard about the Sheppey Support Bus?” She burst into tears and said she was feeling suicidal and had planned to end her life. We brought her on board the bus, made her a cup of tea, chatted to her and got in touch with the community warden. We set up some support for her to be visited.

‘Although she’s not in need of any food support, she started to come every week for the company and now she comes and makes tea for everybody else. She has also joined the weekly Salvation Army Bible study. She was in a desperate place that day and she will say, “I was walking in the right place at the right time. It was meant to be that I was there.”

‘We also helped a woman who lives in a one-bedroom place, who received a fuel bill for £2,300. She couldn’t get through to Citizens Advice and she tried to contact a moneylender because she didn’t have the money to pay the bill. She was receiving 15 calls a day from these moneylenders, and she was beside herself with worry.

‘I was able to put her in touch with the fuel and water adviser who stopped the demands from the fuel company, had a payment plan put in place and visited her at home to see how she’s using her fuel and what can be done. We also went to read her meter, because she didn’t know how to do the readings, and linked her up with some other support as well.’

Responding to the cost of living crisis

Due to the sharp increase in living and fuel costs, the social supermarket has already reached its membership capacity of 100 households and is operating with a waiting list.

‘The numbers we support have spiked suddenly and we need to respond quickly, but not in a rushed way that is going to overburden us. We’re relying on volunteers and it takes a whole day to pick up and prepare stock, and then a day to run the project. So we will need volunteers for another two days, not just one,’ says Lynne.

In her work on the bus, Lynne has the support of another Sheerness employee – Charlie Buckingham. Charlie was originally on a six-month placement through the government’s Kickstart scheme and is now employed by The Salvation Army as a part-time community support worker. He created the Sheppey Support Bus website and Facebook page.

Staff holding tins of food inside the Sheppey Support Bus
Charlie Buckingham with Naomi Oulds, Morrisons community champion

‘Charlie made a significant contribution,’ affirms Lynne. ‘The bus project couldn’t have happened without his skills. He has his own story – he used to access food banks, so is passionate about helping the community.’

Lynne, too, is passionate about the project. ‘It’s all about people – we seek to serve every individual who connects with us, with respect and dignity, demonstrating that they are valued. We strive to take time to listen, to see how we can support them and help them to thrive. We try to offer people choices and hope.

‘We see our service through the Sheppey Support Bus as part of God’s mission in our community. We are privileged to join in with all that God is doing and serve others in this very practical way, offering our time, talents and energy to God as an act of our worship.’

Interview by

Melita Day-Lewis

Melita Day-Lewis

Editorial Assistant

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