A community project which supports residents struggling to make ends meet has praised the work of its tireless volunteers for changing people's lives. 

Shildon Alive, which serves the County Durham town and beyond, provides crisis support, works to alleviate social isolation, and offers free meals to families. 

The initiative was set up in 2014 and has now been handed the King’s Award for voluntary service.

Set up by Paula Nelson, project manager, and run by staff and volunteers with the support of St John’s Church, the project provides hundreds of meals each week for individuals, children and families facing challenging circumstances.

The Northern Echo:

Paula helped set up Shildon Alive after talking to parents outside the school gates and hearing the everyday hardship many local people were going through. “We were desperately in need of something in Shildon as families were travelling elsewhere,” said Paula. 

The service quickly expanded to offer regular weekly drop ins and provide advice, which means staff and volunteers are now “offering a hand up rather than a hand down”. 

Paula added: “The camaraderie of working together instead of against each other is what unites us. We want to look after and care for others.”

Volunteers and staff use surplus supermarket food to supply its shop, with food available on a donation basis to vulnerable adults and families.

They also distribute around 200 meals on wheels a week, while the catering team provides opportunities for young people to work with food, grow in confidence and potentially lead to careers in the industry.

The Northern Echo: Staff and volunteers prepare food in the Shildon Alive kitchen. Staff and volunteers prepare food in the Shildon Alive kitchen. (Image: Stuart Boulton)

Tracey Chappell started as a volunteer during the Covid pandemic but is now working five days a week, creating and serving meals out of the kitchen.

“The volunteers are absolutely amazing, and without them we couldn’t do what we do,” she said. But Tracey is also praised by others for changing the lives of young volunteers by providing opportunities . 

Currently based on Church Street, the hub is set to expand to new premises in the future but staff stress the importance of their town centre presence to help break down barriers in the community. 

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The project also runs a food bank, a credit union and provides support for people facing issues such as financial poverty and unemployment, helping them with benefit claims, housing matters and digital skills.

The Northern Echo: Volunteer Mary Harrison organising the credit union at Shildon Alive.Volunteer Mary Harrison organising the credit union at Shildon Alive. (Image: Stuart Boulton)

Shildon and other neighbouring communities are often labelled ‘left behind’ or ‘deprived’,  but the people at Shildon Alive hope initiatives like this can help remove those stigmas. 

Paula said: “We’re always thinking of ways to ensure we include everybody. We want to create positive role models and raise aspirations. Shildon Alive is not just about food or support, it’s about improving lives.”