WITHOUT the kindness of volunteers, there would be ‘a lot more deaths’ to contend with, according to a man who helped to found a soup kitchen 25 years ago.

Jeff Strickland was part of the team who helped to set up Lunch Stop, an initiative which began in 1993 and went on to feed thousands of people in need for almost two decades.

Lunch Stop’s first session saw just eight people pass through the doors of the now closed St George’s Hall but within weeks, 60 to 70 people were attending each meal, prepared and presided over by kind-hearted volunteers.

Mr Strickland is now trying to trace those he volunteered alongside as he arranges a 25-year reunion.

He hopes to bring people together to socialise and reminisce about days gone by – but also hopes he may be able to encourage some of them to once again give up their time to help others less fortunate.

The 63-year-old is continuing to devote his own life to helping good causes around Darlington and regularly gives his time to helping to run the thrice-weekly soup kitchen at the Darlington Baptist Church on Grange Road.

He is also now assisting with events organised by Food for Thought, an initiative recently established in a bid to ensure food that could have gone to waste instead goes to the community, with communal meals regularly being prepared from produce donated by supermarkets and businesses.

A painter and decorator by trade, Mr Strickland is matter of fact about the time and energy he and others expend in helping people across the community.

He said: “We set up Lunch Stop because there was a need for it and I’m still volunteering because there’s a need for it.

“If there were not community groups and volunteers helping, a lot of people would just be left and there would be a lot more dead as a result.

“The problems are increasing, there are homeless people in Darlington and there’s a lot of hidden homeless, a lot of sofa surfing – I put people up myself.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m adding to the problem by feeding people who may then have more money free to spend on drink or drugs but they still need to eat.

“They still need food and we never ask questions or judge.”

Urging volunteers to attend the upcoming celebratory event, Mr Strickland added: “I’m trying to organise a reunion of as many Lunch Stop volunteers as possible as it will be 25 years since it was set up next month.

“Over the years, we must have had hundreds of people volunteer and we had a massive run, until St George’s Hall was closed.

“There were people on the streets back then, just as there are now and we wanted to make a difference for them.

“We had single people coming in, pensioners and families that just could not afford food for their children.

“It brought people together, a lot of them would come just for the company, especially on Christmas Day.

“I have a lot of fond memories and it would be nice to get everyone together – maybe get some of them volunteering again.”

The 25th anniversary reunion event will be held at Darlington’s St Augustine’s Church Hall on Tuesday, September 11 from 5.30pm until 7.30pm. For more information, call 07811 948833.