A fairy tale of Coventry

sue-bentSue Bent on why Christmas started early for her this year

As I write this, there are a few more shopping days left until Christmas. Many people will be feeling the pressure of making sure they will have enough presents and an abundance of food to create the perfect family day that we all imagine is happening inside the houses that are all aglow.

A fairy tale Christmas – but we all know that, for many, Christmas is a pantomime; or, worse still, it’s a time when other people’s fairy tales highlight just how grim their situation is.

And for many of our clients, life is grim. But every day we see kindness and hope and the triumph of human spirit making things better. That’s what keeps social welfare lawyers going and it feels like it reflects the true spirit of Christmas.

Christmas this year began early for me this year, on 16 November. I went to visit Sandra to capture some of her story on film, so I could share it with the House of Lords Select Committee on Financial Exclusion. Even though it was only mid-way through November, Sandra had a fully decorated tree that reached the ceiling in her living room, and she had already bought and wrapped a stack of presents that were sitting under the tree.

Sandra has a disability and she has a severely disabled son. She has two other sons (one who is a top under-15 footballer), and her own life story starts with a series of what researchers call ‘adverse childhood experiences’. She and her small family have been hanging on by a thread for many years and sadly none of the public services who were trying to help them had realised that they weren’t claiming disability-related benefits. Sandra was coping with the extra expense that medical conditions often cause without enough money to live on.

For our Advice for Families worker, getting that money in place and backdated was just the start. She also applied for grants to help Sandra make her house into a home and for basic things like new bedding – an Avengers duvet cover ‘gave my son the best nights sleep he’s had in years’.

Sandra now has a part-time job. She’s got all her bills on direct debit and she is incredibly proud that she has a TV licence – in the past she’s always just paid the fines. She had painted and wallpapered her living room and was planning driving lessons after Christmas.

This didn’t happen over night. It was a result of several months of an adviser sharing her expert knowledge and a big dose of human kindness. Sandra is a strong woman and she now has hope. She can see a way forward and a Christmas for her kids that will be better than they’ve had for years.

On 3 December, I was lucky enough to attend the ‘Thank you Coventry Dinner’, organised by the Syrian Families who have found new homes in Coventry under the UK government resettlement scheme. About 30 ‘chefs’ cooked an amazing dinner for around 200 people to celebrate the flavours of Aleppo and to raise money for Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre’s destitution fund. The law centre has worked in partnership with the Refugee and Migrant Centre, other charities and the local authority to help to welcome Syrian refugees to the city. The warmth in the room and the spirit of human kindness was uplifting. How sad that this kind of planned support to settle isn’t something that all refugees experience. How many refugees and migrants will be dreaming of their home far away this Christmas – and far from feeling safe and warm will be feeling like outsiders and be scared for their future?

But I was going to talk about kindness and hope…

Just outside my office door, there is a very large pile of children’s toys all wrapped up. They are presents collected and donated by charities in Coventry and will be on their way to the families we work with in the coming week.

We use the law to help make change for people. But on its own that’s not enough. Human warmth, being side by side with people, and really trying to understand their situation is what makes the use of the law potentially transformational.

That’s what law centres are about. It’s why we do Christmas quite well. That and our creativity, dogged determination and sense of humour. And you only have to look at our Christmas jumper competition to see all of that in abundance.

jumpers-1Merry Christmas everyone!


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