Every Tuesday The Smile Brigade opens its doors to welcome local members of the community to come and enjoy a free lunch, pick up books and clothes donated by locals, meet friends and share information about local support and services.
The Smile Brigade was set up by Monique Newton after she realised the need to provide a welcoming space for the residents of Fulham to come together and share a meal and enjoy each other’s company. Having previously lived in a hostel run by the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint and suffering major bouts of depression - Monique remembers all too well the loneliness that can stem from feeling isolated - particularly during the festive season which can be a hard time for many.
Having just moved into permanent accommodation, in December of 2011, Monique started taking food and clothes to rough sleepers at Christmas. This soon escalated into a monthly and then weekly event, amassing up to 30 volunteers in one night, handing out hundreds of cooked meals and clothes to people who were homeless and alone.
Looking back on where it all started with the food handouts - Monique said "the handouts were about so much more than just the food, it was about showing people who had fallen down on their luck and were homeless that they are still loved, valued and cared about. I wanted the people we helped to know that there were still people who cared." She then turned her energy to finding a permanent space where she and her volunteers could help people on a more regular basis and that was when The Smile Brigade was born.
The community meal is run by Monique with the help of chef Josh and assistant Julian and a team of enthusiastic volunteers. Each week they offer tea and coffee, a hot cooked meal with vegetarian options and pudding. Visitors include families with small children, elder members of the community and anyone who wants to come along and join in. No-one is excluded.
The Smile Brigade had only been operating for four weeks when I went along to visit with our photographer Agne. They have already seen visitor numbers double since they opened and have hosted lunch for up to 70 guests.
As well as a delicious lunch, guests can get a haircut by a barber who comes every other week and get information about local services available to them, including advice from the Law Centre and volunteer services accompanied by some great guitar playing by one of the guests!
A typical donation from City Harvest includes meat, fish, vegetables, desserts, dried good, sweets, juice and flowers. Monique explained, “The only thing we really need to supplement the City Harvest delivery is toiletries. The money we save from City Harvest’s donations means we can offer cooking classes to our visitors. Food and music are universal, it gives everyone something to bond over”.
On the day we visited, Josh and Julian had whipped up lots of nutritious and delicious looking dishes including rice, mixed vegetables, baked fish, chicken curry and pasta followed by chocolate cheesecake, served up by the volunteers. Guests can eat in the centre and take some cooked food home if there is anything left. They are also able to take a bottle of juice and some snacks if they are available.
On our visit, I met some of the regular visitors. Nikki, a young mum from nearby Ladbroke Grove was here on first visit. After discovering The Smile Brigade, she decided to donate some children’s clothes to give out to the visitors and ended up offering to volunteer. “It’s amazing what this group is doing, it’s great for local people to come here and meet friends, share food and have a chat”
Another visitor I had the pleasure to meet was Esme. Esme has been a local resident since 1968 and loves the local area. She comes to meet her friends Manzhar who she met at another local group who City Harvest also supply food donations to called Fulham Good Neighbours. Esme told me “The quality of the food is amazing, Josh is incredible. I love to come and have a chat and meet people instead of sitting indoors with the tele on”
Just as she was about to leave, I met a lovely lady called Maria. Maria explained “ I have a frozen shoulder and am in a lot of pain. I came here to use the computers as I am having some problems and I need to sort them out. A lady sat with me for two hours and helped me use the computer and she told me I could have lunch. It’s so nice, I would be on my own at home otherwise”.
The chef Josh told me how he loves to cook fish dishes. I asked him what he likes about cooking at the Smile Brigade. “There is a real sense of community here and a chance for people to make connections. Going forward we would love to get a van and take food out to people on the streets on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. We need funding for that though, but that is our intention for the future”.
Josh is assisted by Julian who came over to London from Italy. He trained in his uncle’s restaurant before moving to London. Julian ended up facing homelessness and unemployment but has found great joy in helping at The Smile Brigade. “The fresh food that you deliver is wonderful, it is so good to see what you will bring. It’s a nice place here, it brings people together”.
City Harvest is thrilled to support groups like The Smile Brigade. It is beautiful to see charities with purpose making such a difference to people's lives.
We are so inspired by the stories of the organisations we deliver food to - it propels us to reach more people and rescue more surplus food.
Keep on smiling! :)
Written by Tay Motl
Photography by Agnes
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