Conversations with… Jane Edwards of The Sherriff Centre (Creating a Community Hub)

I’m the kind of woman who loves feel good things. Videos of formerly deaf children being able to hear their parents speak for the first time, tearfully joyous airport reunions, the scene in Bridget Jones where she’s running to Mark Darcy in the snow… if it’s uplifting and ensures a smile, I’m all over it.

This week’s interview with Jane Edwards goes into that category.

Jane lives in West Hampstead with her husband, daughter and Harley the dog. With a background in working for charities and not for profit organisations, it seems Jane was destined to impact the world… and what an impact she has made!

Jane and her team have worked tirelessly and passionately to transform St James Church into The Sherriff Centre, an inclusive, welcoming hub that has transformed the local community and provided support for countless people. At a time when the world seems like all it can do is fall out with itself, spaces like The Sherriff Centre show us that there are more things that unite us than divide us. We have people like Jane to thank us for shining a light on that.

How did you come up with the idea of The Sherriff Centre?

I can’t claim to have had the original vision for The Sherriff Centre – that goes to the former Vicar of St James, Father Andrew Cain. The church at the time was only open once a week for Sunday service and when Father Andrew saw a tweet from an estate agent asking for potential sites to re-home the local post office, he suggested St James Church. His original idea was for a Post Office and small cafe to be operated within the church, with profits used to run a debt advice charity.

I came into the picture shortly after this Twitter exchange when Andrew, who I had already knew from a previous job, asked me to write a business plan. Originally, he told me that it would be 6 weeks work…7 years later, I’m still with the project!

We worked together to flesh out the vision to include other elements which would be interesting, bring the local community together and importantly ensure financial sustainability for the charity.

When you were working on the project, did you have to overcome any obstacles?

We had so many obstacles to overcome! It quickly became apparent that this was a huge undertaking with so many different aspects to bring together, from managing a large building project to establishing three different businesses (Post Office, Cafe and Soft Play), not to mention setting up the charity.

There was a huge amount of fundraising to do to complete the changes in the church. When building costs came in much higher than initial projections, we had a very stressful second wave of raising money. At that point, the project almost faltered.

Myself and Andrew were so passionate about what we were creating that we were able to present a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve. We were lucky to have funders who could see the benefits of the project at these early stages. Creating something so unique worked for us in this sense, but not having any project or organisation to look to as any kind of blue print was a challenge.

One of the many things I like about what you have done is that you have created an inclusive space. Why was inclusivity important to you and Andrew?

From the very beginning, we wanted to create a place for everyone to feel safe and welcomed in. We called the cafe ‘The Sanctuary Café’ to reflect just that. From a religious perspective, Andrew was and still is an active advocate for the LGBT community and was passionate that this was front and centre, as it always had been at St James.

We wanted anyone who may have misgivings about coming into a church, for any reason, to feel that this was a space that was inclusive and where they would always be welcome.
I can only imagine what a difference having access to such an inviting, accepting space has made to people’s lives. Why do you think it is important for communities to have access to centres like this?

What I love about my job is that I’m still learning every day why it’s important to have community spaces like The Sherriff Centre. It’s important to us that we are a place to have fun and relax, and customers tell us ways in which they enjoy the space and what it means to them. We try hard to give people chances to connect, to feel safe and welcomed. We wanted to create a space for everyone to use, to give something back to, to feel proud of.

What has been your proudest moment since beginning this project?

I’m pleased to say I have so many proud moments, from seeing the community take us to their heart and embrace everything that we have to offer to using the space as we’d hoped to bringing ideas to us that have sparked some fantastic collaborations and partnerships.

Some highlights spring to mind, such as our cafe winning Time Out’s Love London Award for best cafe in the neighbourhood after only 2 years of being open, visits from other churches all over the world coming to see what we’ve done, seeing the network of friendships that have sprung up from the 27 staff we now employ, the community response to the Grenfell tragedy when we were overwhelmed with donations.

The feedback from our debt advice service and seeing client’s lives transforming with the help of our fantastic advisor, as well as the incredible recommendations and reviews of our service from other debt agencies and council bodies, makes me feel exceptionally proud.
When you started the project, you had a clear vision of what you wanted it to become, but has the reality of The Sherriff Centre met or exceeded your expectations?

Reality has definitely exceeded my expectations! Both the business and the charity have grown and developed far beyond the original vision.

From a business perspective, we offer so much more than our 3 original elements. We now run children’s parties every week and we rent our space to other community groups, classes and events. We host many events and activities ourselves, most recently branching out into movie night – the church will be showing the film Halloween, on Halloween!

The charity has been able to merge into the business as we now offer free space to small charities to run events. We have our community fridge and every year the charity organises a Christmas lunch in December for older, isolated residents.

How does it feel to called ‘inspirational’ for the work you have done for your community?

To be called inspirational is very flattering. I completely share credit with the team around me and love that the work we do is valued and inspiring. Simply working in the space we have and with the team I have inspires me everyday. It’s extremely rewarding and I’m very proud to part of this community.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

If you don’t ask the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.
To find out more about the The Sherriff Centre and the amazing work they do, please head to www.thesherriffcentre.co.uk

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