From hardship to hope

An unexpected emergency food parcel made it possible for Rodney and his children to eat on Christmas Day 2020.(Photo: CAP)

In the run-up to Christmas 2020, Rodney Winchester was facing one of the most challenging seasons of his life.

A knee operation had left the single dad unable to work for months on end, eventually leading to bankruptcy. There was no money to feed his three children or heat their home, and there was no money for Christmas gifts. 

In a moment of desperation, he turned to Christians Against Poverty (CAP) for help and one year on, Christmas 2021 could not be more different.

Now back on his feet, Rodney is supporting CAP's Christmas appeal so that more people like him can be helped out of poverty.

Christian Today spoke to Rodney and CAP's Alex Jones about how poverty is affecting ordinary people and the help that is out there.

CT: Rodney, what kind of situation were you in this time last year and how difficult was life for you before you got in touch with CAP?

Rodney: This time last year I was making the decision in my head that the children would be better off in care. That's how bad it was. We had no money, no heating oil, no food. I was just lucky that I turned on the computer and found CAP. I don't even know where it came, it just appeared, right in the moment I had reached that point. For any parent to get to that point is horrible - when you can't provide for your kids, you've reached the bottom line.

CT: So Christmas presents were out of the question?

Rodney: Yes, totally out of the question. We had nothing. There was nothing in the fridge, we had no money left on credit cards. There's struggling - and then there's really struggling.

CT: How did this hardship impact your children?

Rodney: It turned their lives upside down, but I'm lucky that we went through so much together because now we're very close. I've turned it around and my 14-year-old daughter has just been promoted in the cadets - from being in a situation where she needed support from social services.

It pushes you along because you can see your kids getting better and we've got out of this cycle of debt collectors coming through the door. One time I was on the sofa with my swollen leg and the debt collector came in. I couldn't even walk.

But on a good note, it brought me and the kids closer together because we had more time together, we had a large garden and built things and were able to get to know each other again. So there are positives. You've just got to hunt them out.

CT: What difference did it make to get in touch with CAP?

Rodney: I used to have my own house and business and it all went to pot with my injured knee but I was too proud to ask anybody for help. I raised my own kids on the principle of getting out there to work and earn it yourself. There's no easy ride or anything like that.

But I bit the bullet that night and got in touch with CAP and they assigned Heather to work with me. She didn't judge me at all, she listened to the situation I was in and within four hours there was a food parcel on the door. There are no words to describe the relief of having food to feed the kids. We had gone through the penny jar, there was nothing left. And she organised some heating oil for us and CAP even entered me into a competition with a heating company and I got a text a couple of weeks later saying I'd won a year's supply of heating oil free! It all changed so quickly!

It was just a godsend to be able to turn the heating on because having no heating and no hot water is so awful and yet there was nothing we could do about it. To be able to pull the blankets off us and walk around the house warm for the first time brought a smile to all our faces.

CT: How different will Christmas this year be?

Rodney: Thanks to CAP we managed to have food on the table last year and that was the most important thing. The kids made a little something out of things in the garden because we didn't have money to spend on presents. And you have to be in the real world: if you haven't got money, you haven't got money.

This year, we're celebrating. We've got heat and a roof over our heads and I've managed to fill the chest freezer up with food because I don't want ever to be in that situation again. It's the worst ever.

CT: You mentioned that it was hard to take the initial step of reaching out for help. What would you say to someone else struggling to take that step and ask for help?

Rodney: Absolutely ask for help because it is like night and day once you've got someone helping you and fighting your case. It just takes that pressure off you and means you're not alone. The difference is like flicking a light switch on. For CAP to come along and take that pressure off me was like a godsend. And you don't get judged or looked down upon or told, how come you mucked up. Which is important because when you are in this kind of situation you lose your confidence. When CAP stepped in to help, it was like winning the lottery.

CT: Alex, the economic climate for people in general is pretty tough, with energy costs and food prices all rising, but what does that mean for people living on the poverty line?

Alex: When the pandemic first hit, we saw that those on the margins are least able to deal with the bumps and shock of change. Different things impacting people right now include big increases in the cost of living, so things like food costs and energy costs, but also changes to Universal Credit in the autumn and the end of furlough.

These are all forming the perfect storm, and to some extent, we are all impacted, but many of us have more of a margin to deal with it. Some remained financially stable during the pandemic due to things like furlough, while others even emerged in a better financial position because of things like eating out less and not going on holiday. CAP even saw an increase in giving from our supporters who recognised that there were others who were being really impacted by the pandemic.

CT: Have you seen an increase in demand for your services?

Alex: Yes, since October we've seen an increase in the number of referrals coming to us for emergency support. That's things like emergency top-ups for heating or emergency food shops. If you're already on the margins and your budget is already a little bit tricky, then the shocks and changes to your income can feel huge. We've actually seen a 92% increase in requests coming through for this kind of emergency support to see people through the winter.

CT: How will the increasingly wintery weather impact that?

Alex: Not all of us are in the privileged place of being able to put the heating on without thinking about what it's going to cost. Many of our clients face that really difficult choice of deciding whether to eat or turn the heating on or turn the lights on. So this is the kind of emergency support we are providing - heating and food.

CT: What's the Christmas appeal about?

Alex: It's about people like Rodney who last Christmas was wondering how he was going to get through it. He was able to receive support from CAP and his local church, and now he and his family are in a much better situation and can look forward to a Christmas that is secure and not facing those horribly difficult choices.

CT: For families that are having to make these kinds of choices, is the cost of Christmas burdensome?

Alex: It depends on individual clients but we do live in a culture that puts a lot on Christmas and we create expectations and hopes around that. So perhaps families with kids going to school and hearing about their friends and the gifts they're getting may feel that more. It's not unusual for parents on the margins to skip meals so that their kids can eat properly. All parents want to provide the very best for their children so that's a really tough place to be in for parents.

That's where our local church partners will often step in by hosting Christmas meals and doing toy appeals to make sure that those things are provided for. The real difference comes when the local church gets involved because they can offer that kind of face to face support and bring a bit more hope and light into people's lives, particularly over the Christmas period. Our partner churches are very good at making sure there is this additional support.

CT: The Christmas appeal aims to raise £70,000. What will that go towards?

Alex: We want to provide more emergency support - things like emergency food shops, top-ups, school uniforms - all those essential things that keep people connected and ensuring they have the basics.

Obviously there are long term needs to help people become debt free and find a budget that works for them, but there are also very immediate needs and the emergency support can get them through these very tough moments.

We're inspired by Jesus who said he came that they may have life in all its fullness. What does that look like when you're making the difficult choice of feeding your family or heating your home, when you're on a low wage and not sure how to give your family the hope for the future you would want to give them?

It is a tough time for people and we know that many people will be impacted and we want to be there for them.

CT: The campaign is called 'Christmas in Full Colour'. What's the meaning behind that?

Alex: Rodney talked about how the support from the local church and the food shop just in time for Christmas showed him how much people cared about him and he began to feel colour come back into his life again. He and his family are a great example of how small acts of kindness can restore colour to people's lives again and make it possible for them to face a better future.

CT: It's possible that we may yet see another lockdown. Do you foresee that having any financial impact?

Alex: It's all a bit unknown but what we do know from the first time round was the importance of keeping the uplift in universal credit as the government rightly recognised that there were additional support needs for those on the margins. But that uplift was removed earlier this autumn and now that support isn't there. It's possible that a future lockdown will see some of the things we saw last time, with work becoming more insecure and a return to the pressures of homeschooling again. Some of the emergency support we provided last year was actually directed at providing children with mobile devices so that they could continue with learning during lockdown.