In the latest instalment in a monthly series showing how Durham is Powered by People, PETER BARRON meets a man at the heart of a community’s response to the coronavirus crisis

IN the days leading up to the biggest crisis in a generation – with talk of a lockdown in the air – Darren McMahon glanced round the people in the ramshackle room and said: “I’ve no idea what they’d do if this place had to close.”

Within days, PACT House – a community hub that’s flourished in a former Lloyds Bank building – had been forced to lock it doors.

A month on, the place that so many vulnerable people treat as a second home, remains shut. But the PACT House spirit lives on in Stanley, County Durham.

“We might not have the building but nearly all the services are continuing – they have to,” says Darren, one of the charity’s founders.

A heart-warming consequence of the pandemic has been the emergence of community heroes. But father-of-two Darren’s importance to the community was recognised long before coronavirus had been heard of.

For 30 years, he’s helped to bind the community together. It’s just that the priceless work he and his team carry out is needed more than ever in unprecedented times.

With PACT House locked, Stanley Civic Hall has become the distribution point for food parcels, toiletries, and prescriptions. In the first three weeks of lockdown, 550 ‘crisis parcels’ were sent out – an increase of more than 600 per cent.

“I just love people and knew they’d still need support so, once the lockdown came, we switched to frozen meals that could be delivered or collected,” says Darren.

He credits that love of people with his upbringing in an Army family that travelled the world.

His parents, Joyce and Vincent, were born in Stanley. Joyce was a dinner nanny and Vincent became a soldier, serving with the Durham Light Infantry, and he remains a proud member of the DLI Association. Darren was born in Northern Ireland, in 1969, at the beginning of The Troubles.

Germany, Hong Kong, and various military bases in England were also temporary homes, and Darren’s education encompassed 16 schools.

“There was lots of life experience, with different cultures, and I think it’s where my fascination for people comes from,” he says.The Northern Echo:

His mind drifts back to when he was eight – he was in Bath and joined in with some boys playing football. “A kid took his hat off and dreadlocks fell out. I’d never seen a Rastafarian, and it was fascinating, but then he was just another kid kicking a ball around – that’s all that mattered,” he adds.

Darren was a teenager by the time the family returned to Stanley, and his first job was with a printing firm in Craghead. He stayed for the next 30 years but, when he was in his twenties, he volunteered at South Moor Boys’ Club.

It proved to be his vocation and he embarked on a Level 3 course in youth work. That led to a paid job three nights a week, although he still worked at the print business. He also spent eight years on Derwentside District Council, and chaired South Moor Partnership.

When anti-social behaviour problems flared, Darren was asked to help set up a youth café in a joint project with the police and Derwentside CVS. It proved to be a huge success and evolved into what PACT House is today: a food bank; community café; training venue; mental health counselling centre; addiction support unit; business mentoring service; domestic abuse haven; and community radio station.

Those services rely on grants from Stanley Town Council, County Durham Community Foundation, the Health Lottery, and Greggs Foundation, along with food donations from Tesco, Aldi, and FareShare. Durham County Council has also been supportive, funding a number of projects, including one to tackle the high suicide rate among young people.

And, in the midst of the lockdown, the PACT House services are proving more valuable than ever. As well as the crisis parcels, as many “PACTivities” as possible are continuing online, including mental health advice, and “lots of fun stuff” to raise spirits.

The online community radio station – DH9 Radio – makes sure the reassuring voices of the PACT House team are still heard. When a dedication was read out to four-year-old Alice, who is in remission from leukaemia, it made her day to hear from “Our Darren”.

Somehow, he combines his community work with running his own printing company – inevitably called PACT Print – and is no stranger to working from 7am to 11pm. But he’s keen to stress he’s part of a team: “I couldn’t do it without the support of others,” he insists.

He also acknowledges there are countless community champions across the county: “Durham people are the most important resource – if you invest in them, they give so much more back,” he says.

That’s why he’s happy to endorse the county council’s “Powered by People” movement, putting people at the forefront of showcasing Durham.

“Durham’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, with wonderful people who often don’t realise what a difference they make. We speak to strangers – we have a strong community spirit, and PACT House is a microcosm of that. When coronavirus has gone, we have to go on helping others.”

Durham County Council leader, Councillor Simon Henig, said: “It’s inspiring to see people like Darren and the PACT House team supporting others.  The dedication and kindness of people across County Durham has really come to the fore in recent weeks, the response we’ve received from volunteers coming forward to join the County Durham Together community hub has been outstanding.”

A month on from wondering what would happen if PACT House had to close, Darren McMahon and his team are providing powerful answers.

  • County Durham Together community hub: or phone 03000 260 260
  • To find out more about the Powered by People movement, go to


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