by Emma Hammond

On a sunny day in January I caught the train to vibrant, buzzing Bethnal Green to visit somewhere that sounded like my kind of place- St Margaret’s House. Composed of a Gallery Café (I like cakes… and art!), a workshop space (I am a teacher of poetry) and home to 38 voluntary and community organisations (I really like people), it is a hub of exciting activity.
As well as all this they also have a resident charity shop Ayoka, which is really more of a boutique, stocking colourful fare all hand-picked to target not only the fashionable, bargain-minded but also to provide quality cheap clothing for the community.
I spoke to Terry Calbraith, the Community Co-ordinator who enthused about St. Margaret’s as a whole, and explained to me that the shop is run by 12 volunteers and relies entirely on donations. All the art on the walls is done by local artists, one of whom has gone on to bigger and better things- Joe Goode who makes gorgeous pictures.

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The shop is set to go online, selling the rarer more vintage pieces and they plan to take part in London Fashion week events- re-defining what a charity shop is and can be. Along with this there is also talk of a forthcoming label ‘Create Ayoka’, a fantastic up-cycling project. With one million tonnes of clothing sent to landfill each year, the need for this kind of initiative is obvious.
Terry also told me about the other ‘shop’ The Create Place, again predominately managed by volunteers- that runs free drop-in sessions and workshops such as painting, sewing and even origami with children from the neighbouring primary school, St. John’s. Anyone can come and use the space to put on workshops or events, giving people a chance to refine their skills whilst also giving something back. It is this kind of inclusivity that makes St. Margaret’s House special.

One event which really caught my imagination was the monthly ‘Maggie’s Soapbox’, which is a night influenced by the Japanese presentation methodology of PechaKucha. Anyone is welcome to turn up and have a go at this kind of Speaker’s Corner- why not get involved?

I spoke to Vicki, the Assistant Community Co-ordinator who started as a volunteer and became so involved that she now runs kid’s workshops and after school clubs there. She said it is exactly this ‘possibility to contribute’ that attracted her to the position. It was time for a cup of tea, so I headed over to the Gallery Café. Looking out onto a lovely garden the Vegan Café is a real refuge from the bustling streets outside. Cosy and inviting, you are immediately put at ease by the friendly staff serving delicious meals. The Café provides a platform for music, poetry and craft events as well as a ‘Vegan Gourmet night’ which turns the space into a restaurant replete with white tablecloths and candlelight!
All over the walls is hung interesting art, and this along with the reasonable prices makes for a pleasant, relaxed experience.

SAMSUNGAlthough these things are wonderful, the main focus for St. Margaret’s House is the work they do for the community at large. As well as running in-house projects, the settlement also house many interesting and worthwhile user groups, such as Quaker Social Action, the British Stammering Association and the University of the Third Age. U3A is a fantastic scheme which provides educational, creative and leisure opportunities for people no longer in full-time employment. Considering how many older people in London are alone or far away from their families, this can only be a hugely positive thing.

St. Margaret’s also have an Intern and Volunteering Programme that supports over 65 volunteers, and a green policy that is forward-thinking and innovative. The feeling you get being there is that the settlement as a whole is really doing something important for everybody, bringing people closer together and constantly thinking of new ways to improve lives.
If you would like to get involved then take a look at their (soon to be re-vamped) website.
http://www.stmargaretshouse.org.uk/