December 19, 2023

‘A fellowship of support, care and love - not just at Christmas but all year round'

If there’s one story that illustrates the success of the Caritas Carmel Care Centre in the Hallam diocese of Sheffield, it’s this.


A visitor came to the centre, which provides counselling support to people with addictions and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse,and saw about 20 people seated around the table sharing a meal and chatting amiably.


She assumed these were the volunteer helpers and asked where all the service users were. When she was told that these were the service users eating with the volunteers as equals, she was amazed.


“There’s no stigma or judgment here,” explains Janet Kent,Carmel Care Centre’s senior manager, “just a warm welcome and acceptance. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’. You feel an amazing warmth and spirit as soon as you walk through the door.”


The centre, a converted doctor’s house and surgery, offers care, friendship, counselling – and lunch – to around 100 guests a week, yet is run by just nine volunteers on a mere £10,000 a year. At Carmel, a little goes a very long way.


Originally established in the mid-Eighties by the late Reverend Hubert McNamara (‘Fr Mac’) and Sister Moira Morris, the centre has catered to vulnerable people from all backgrounds in its trademark non-judgemental way.


“The diversity of people we have coming through the door is amazing,” says Janet, “from young people to professionals, from those who’ve lost everything through alcohol to those who are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault.”


Breaking bread together


Lunch is a crucial part of the service. For many guests this may be the only hot meal they have that day.


“Sitting and eating together starts conversations, and that builds trust and then you get relationships and fellowship. That’s at the heart of the centre, really,” says Janet.


“It makes me want the food to be really great and varied. Keeping that high standard up is really important, so we make everything from scratch and everyone chips in, often using fresh herbs that we’ve grown in our small kitchen garden.”


Gardening helps bring people together and can be very therapeutic, Janet believes.


“For many of our guests it’s their first experience of planting seeds and watching things grow. Then being able to share what you’ve grown with other people, that’s a wonderful experience.”


Meals are often accompanied by homegrown herbs, salads and tomatoes, with homemade dressings invented by the guests. Being creative - the centre also offers poetry workshops - helps the Carmel’s guests regain agency and confidence, Janet explains.


Giving back


People who’ve benefited from the counselling and support often become volunteers themselves.


“Those who’ve managed to turn everything around can be inspiring role models who want to share their challenges and successes and pass that on to others. There’s a real sense of reciprocity here.


“It’s a fellowship of support, care and love, and you feel that very strongly,” Janet reflects.


For example, one volunteer, a former service user who sought counselling after experiencing trauma, said: “I started to volunteer to help with the lunches in the kitchen. I have to say the experience has given me my confidence back again and I have made some wonderful new friends.”


Carmel offers the counselling service in addition to the addiction support groups at low or no cost. Students will often come on placement as part of their advanced practice and complete their necessary hours to earn their qualification but end up staying.


As one student counsellor said: “The minimum requirement to become qualified is 100 counselling hours during placement, but such were the opportunities and love I had for the work, I completed over 200 hours by the time I graduated.” 


A friendly face


While many who come to the Carmel Care Centre seeking help are deeply troubled and traumatised, others are simply sad and lonely.


“Isolation and loneliness is probably our biggest issue,”says Janet. “So we’ve created a welcoming and safe space that really does feel like family.


“We’re open on Christmas Day, otherwise many would just be alone. We create a festive atmosphere, with music, decorations, snacks and drinks. It’s like being with a wonderful extended family.”


One guest, who first came to Carmel Care after their mother died, says: “I felt at a loss. I live on my own now and the isolation can be very difficult, especially during the winter months.


“I come to the centre on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and always look forward to the wonderful food and company. 


“I have found true friendship and care here.”


Expansion plans


The Carmel team used a £5,000 grant from the Charles Plater Trust to renovate the rooms with new flooring and make the centre more welcoming and comfortable. Now, they’re planning to knock through to expand the space, and perhaps develop upstairs, too, as they add to their suite of services.


“We felt we wanted to respond to the rise in domestic abuseand violence around Sheffield during the Covid pandemic,” says Janet, who has a background in social work.


“So in addition to one-to-one counselling we developed a wellbeing programme addressing self-esteem, confidence, stress, and self-love.”


Referrals to Carmel’s domestic abuse counselling servicecome from IDAS – Independent Domestic Abuse Services – which covers North andSouth Yorkshire. Sadly, the number of referrals has been on the rise following the pandemic.


The work is never done, but the Carmel Care Centre shows that by treating people with non-judgemental love, respect and acceptance – and by offering appropriate professional counselling – lives can be transformed and set on the path to recovery and regrowth.