THE coronavirus may have brought the country to a near standstill, but they are rising to the occasion inside the ramshackle building that once served as a high street bank.

These days, it is not financial deposits that are the currency at PACT House – it is desperately needed food parcels.

Across the road from the Jobcentre, the building is now a focal point for whatever vulnerable people in the County Durham community of Stanley might need – and today the priority happens to be bread.

Normally, bread is supplied by the nearby Tesco and Aldi supermarkets when it is reaching its sell-by date. But panic buying has stripped the shelves – and that means it’s time for the Kids’ Kitchen to spring into action.

The Kids’ Kitchen is a vital part of PACT House, where local youngsters cook food for those experiencing hardship in one of the most deprived areas of the country.

“They’re busy making bread today and doing a great job,” says co-ordinator Darren McMahon as he leads the way to the kitchen at the back of the building in Front Street.

Darren is a big, friendly bear of a man – the kind who wouldn’t look out of place in the Alaskan wilderness. But he’s here, in deepest County Durham, where he’s rightly treated like a local hero.

“Everything is driven by the people who walk through the door,” he explains. “They haven’t found anywhere else to address their need, so they come here.”

Elise, 12, takes a break from the bread-making to explain why she loves working in the Kids’ Kitchen: “I want to help people and give them a good experience in life,” she smiles with a maturity that defies her tender years. “I like how everyone looks out for each other.”

She goes back to the kitchen, where her brother Michael, 11, and Amber, nine, are making the bread under the watchful eye of community chef David Mills. Isaac, four, and Alice, three, are messing around too – although their culinary contribution is understandably limited.

They and a dozen other youngsters have learned cooking techniques, a better understanding of nutrition, and lots of social skills.

Darren remembers the first time Elise and Michael came to PACT House with mum Frankie: “It was winter, and they just started shovelling snow outside. They’ve been part of the furniture ever since.”

Frankie also volunteers at the hub and has no doubt about its value to her children: “It’s done wonders for their self-confidence,” she says. “They don’t fully appreciate the importance of what they do but there is such a big need in this area.”

Years back, the building was occupied by Lloyds Bank but, when it merged with TSB, it moved up the road. It had a variety of other uses before being left empty in 2017. Darren, who was a youth worker for Durham County Council at the time, had started a drop-in centre for young people nearby and it needed bigger premises.

The former bank proved to be ideal and has become a venue for all kinds of activities. As well as being the local food bank, it serves as a school holiday hunger programme, arts and crafts studio, mental health advice centre, addiction support unit, business mentoring service, haven for domestic violence victims, and community radio station.

There’s a clear irony that the food bank supplies are stored downstairs in the old bank vault, behind a heavy prison-like door. The cans, jars, packets and boxes are neatly stacked alongside safes that were once stuffed with cash.

As well as an average of 25 food parcels being distributed, the building hosts three community meals a week. On Christmas Day, 82 meals were served, and the Kids’ Kitchen crew raised enough money with a raffle to buy 40 selections boxes for local children.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, a take-away service has been launched – it was sausage casserole last night and it was in big demand.

Customers are asked to make a donation if they can afford to but not everyone can. “We have one lady who cleans the toilets in return for a meal,” says Darren.

Meanwhile, Alan Armstrong is quietly painting a seascape. “If it wasn’t for this place, I’d have nowhere to go. I feel like I belong,” he says.

Chris Gibson first came through the door because he needed a food parcel and has become a volunteer. He lacked self-confidence to begin with but recently set up a group to support those suffering from social anxiety and loneliness. In the first week, 24 people turned up, rising to nearly 40 for the second session.

“It’s a place where people can come and express themselves and interact,” he says.

PACT House relies on donations from the likes of the Postcode Lottery, Greggs Foundation, and the County Durham Community Foundation, which has just delivered the “massive news” that the Kids’ Kitchen has been granted top prize of £3,000 in the High Sheriff Awards.

“We run on an obscenely small budget and this award gives the young people a chance to choose their future whereas we’ve normally had to beg for a future,” says Darren.

“I’ll let the kids decide how to spend it. They want to buy kitchen utensils but if they said they wanted to give it to another charity, it wouldn’t surprise me because they are a wonderful bunch of young people.”

Kelly, who has arrived with her chihuahua, Bonny Lass, in a pushchair, agrees: “The kids are fantastic but so is everyone here,” she says.

Alongside her is Kirsty, a young mum carrying a baby. His first name is Oliver and he’s been given the second name of Pact-rick – in honour of the place that has become his second home.

“It’s like a family here – a lifeline,” says Kirsty.

Just then, all eyes turn to the back of the room as a shout of excitement goes up in the kitchen: “The bread’s ready!”

HAD it not been for the pandemic, I would have been hosting the High Sheriff Awards at Durham Town Hall last night.

Instead it was replaced by a virtual awards ceremony which can be viewed at

A record £16,000 was handed out – here’s the roll of honour: 27th Darlington Scout Group (£500); St Peter’s Church, Stockton, (£500); 21st Darlington Scout Group (£500); Durham Agency Against Crime (£500); Bright Minds Big Future (£1,500); BCT Aspire CIC (£1,500); Burnmoor Scout Group (£1,500); 234 City of Durham Squadron (£2,000); Durham Association Boys and Girls (£2,000); Woodshed Workshop (£2,500); PACT House – Kids’ Kitchen (£3,000).