THE Just For Women Centre in Stanley has been a lifeline for women from all over the region, but when one of its own volunteers, Yvonne, took her life last year, it shook the centre to its core.

Devastated, the staff considered closing the doors for good. But suddenly they had a reason to stay - funding that would help them save thousands of other women, including many as desperate as Yvonne.

The small, independent, not-for-profit organisation was set up in January 2011 by former social worker Linda Kirk, who sold her coffee shop to fund it. Using craft as a form of therapy, the idea was to create a place where vulnerable women could access free counselling, learn skills, form friendships and re-build their confidence to get back into work. Since its launch, the centre has helped more than 3,500 women, including many survivors of abuse.

Like a lot of the women, Yvonne had suffered from depression, but had a love for crafts and gained so much from the centre, she became a volunteer.

“Yvonne had gone through breast cancer and if any women came in who had just been diagnosed, she would sit and talk to them for hours,” says Linda. “She was a quiet, lovely, genteel type of person, a fantastic crafter. We have a lot of things she made. She recovered from cancer, but had a lot of problems. We were trying to get her back on her feet and she was trying to get well so she could start working again. Then she had some benefits taken away. It was a benefit she should have been entitled to and she fought and fought to try and get it re-instated, but couldn’t cope. She lost her appeal and she was dead within a week. It was devastating. Absolutely devastating.”

Twelve months later, a letter arrived saying her case had been overturned, Yvonne had been assessed on her physical, not her mental, health and had been entitled to the benefit after all. It was too late.

“We were all shaken and upset, she was a real part of the centre, we miss her dearly,” says Linda. “We had been fighting so hard for women, particularly Yvonne. We thought is anyone listening? Are we actually being heard?”

Linda and co-director, Lestryne Tweedy questioned whether to keep the centre open. It was a visit from Kevan Jones MP for North Durham, who convinced them. “He said, ‘think about all the women you have kept alive’ and his words really lifted us,” says Linda. “We thought of the women that come here every day and thought, where would they go?”

Like food banks, the centre provides clothing and toiletries and saw a sharp increase in the number of women with no where else to turn when changes to the welfare system were brought in. With many battling depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, suicide has become a real challenge.

Linda fears there could be more cases like Yvonne’s once Universal Credit is rolled out. “We have got a lot of high-risk women who live alone and are very vulnerable, who don’t have family or friends and they are in the depths of despair when they come to us,” she says.

“There are benefits being taken away from people who are desperately in need. We have got women here who are first-time offenders. It’s a case of, ‘what do I do? Do I pinch a few loaves of bread for my kids, or do I starve them?’ This is Britain now. This is what we’re seeing every day. Some people are sick of surviving because that’s what they’re doing - surviving. There needs to be more done for people in need who see their only way out is suicide.”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed the North-East had the highest rate of suicide in Britain between 2013 – 2015 with 847 people (656 men and 191 women) taking their own lives. Linda estimates around 40 per cent of women who have come to the centre have either tried or had suicidal thoughts at times.

A few months after Yvonne’s death, the centre received a grant from the Office of the Durham Police and Crime Commissioner to work with social enterprise specialists, Acumen, who helped them to put a business plan together and apply for funding from the Fresh Ideas Fund. After a nail-biting pitch in front of a Dragon’s Den style panel, in January 2017 Linda got a call to say they had been awarded nearly £50,000.

The funding meant they could take the centre to a new level - hire two part-time machinists, launch their new ‘Just Handmade’ business and develop new lines including throws, cushions, rag rugs, furniture and craft therapy kits for people recovering from cancer, mental health and suffering from dementia. All the profits going back into the centre.

As well as a new website and a stand at major trade fairs, in the new year there are plans to move to new premises, with a bigger shop, tea room and office space, with help from Stanley Town Council. “The funding means we’re able to do things we could never have done,” says Linda.

As well as the Cree project which provides a drop in service for men and women, the centre is working with Gateshead Young Women’s project in schools to educate young girls. “Nearly all of the girls we spoke to had experienced some sort of grooming and bullying and I’d say half were dealing with domestic violence, but the feedback we’ve had has been fantastic,” says director and support worker Debbie Rogan.

In October, Linda was also short-listed for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize, alongside social worker Sara Rowbotham, who exposed the Rochdale grooming scandal.

“We have a lot of ladies who say, ‘I wonder if my life would have been different if I hadn’t been abused as a child or raped when I was 18’,” says Linda. “We can’t take it away from them, but what we can do is to help them break down the barriers and give them the coping skills to manage it better. The achievements some of these women have had is unbelievable and that’s what keeps us going.”