Square 1 Café is a non-profit enterprise based in New Malden that sprung up in 2021, encouraging people to come out of their homes and have a chat over free cake and coffee without any membership obligation.
The café has been running successfully for two years and has inspired two more branches at the Chessington Sports Centre in Chessington and the YMCA Hawker Centre in Kingston.
Both cafés have adopted the Square 1 name but are run by New Era Community Projects, a non-profit that aligns with Square 1’s idea of promoting community interaction.
“We kept the same name for continuity and identity so people can understand a Square 1 Café means that I know I can come in for a free sandwich and coffee,” said Kylie Harrod-Eagles, a volunteer at the Café run by New Era on Thursdays at Hawkers Centre in Kingston.
The cafés have become a hive of volunteer activities, socialising and a safe space for those who want their voices heard.
Providing a safe space
On an overcast Friday evening at New Era’s Café in Chessington, Stephanie Bader, a mother-of-two, meets Michele Lewington, the head of projects at New Era, to discuss a proposal that is close to her heart.
Stephanie is a parent carer with Kingston Carers’ Network and wants to reach out to parents in and around the borough whose children struggle with emotionally based school avoidance (EBSA), a term referring to reduced or nonattendance at school by a child or young person due to emotional, mental health or wellbeing issues.
“I want to set up a group for parents whose children and young people are really struggling to access education at the minute,” said Stephanie.
She rues the fact that EBSA being a vital issue for many parents across the UK still does not achieve statutory recognition and says she cannot understand why “no one’s talking about it”.
She is part of a Facebook group called ‘not fine in school’ which has up to 50,000 subscribers which include individuals who are facing or care about this issue.
She wants to create a similar support group for locals and has found a formidable ally in Michele who said that if the Café cannot collaborate on the issues that really need help “then I am failing”.
In addition to providing a space for such initiatives, one of the biggest motivations for the cafés has been its team of volunteers. Michele gets emotional when she describes the commitment of volunteers who “come every week, rain or shine”.
At the Hawker Centre, Kylie has a roster of 16 volunteers who take turns dedicating two days of their week to the café, first day for procurement and the second to running the place. The only recompense these volunteers get is in the compliments they receive from visitors.
“I am very fortunate to take a year off work, and so I just decided that I wanted to make sure that some of my time was spent giving back to the community,” said Kylie reflecting on her motivation to join.
Stephanie, who is a resident of Chessington, similarly spoke about volunteers at the café in Chessington.
“It is very special… and you know volunteers come from the community. These are all Chessington people that want to make their local area better and bring people together.”
Michele said that people hold the initiative in high regard and that “the volunteers are amazing and get the absolute best commendations”.
In her own right, Michele is a dedicated volunteer who liaises with various supermarkets and non-profits for picking up food deliveries and exchanging resources, respectively.
“I collaborate with a lot of other charities and have a network of other organisations that just join the dots.
“There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. If somebody else is doing something better than me, then I am going to let them do that. I am going to go out and do something different.”
She has been into volunteering for a long time and after her husband passed away, has become even more motivated towards her work.
Both Michele and Stephanie have a soft spot for Chessington which they believe has become a kind of “forgotten postcode”.
From a resident’s perspective, Stephanie believes that since the Kingston town centre is a more happening place – with the university, marketplace, and tourist attractions – it gets the lion’s share of the funding from the council. She says that even though Kingston is understood to be an affluent borough, “we have some of the largest pockets of deprivation, and those are in the areas that don’t get that attention”.
Michele said, “When I found New Era, I realised that I don’t need to come out of my house and turn right into Surbiton to help anybody, (rather) I need to turn left because it’s the people of Chessington that need help more than anybody else.”
The Social Mix
The café at Chessington has become a regular fixture for some residents where some according to Michele “call it their club”.
The strength of the bond between the volunteers and the attendees is evident in the fact that when the café was closed in October this year, Michele and a volunteer colleague invited a group of nine ladies over to her house instead.
“It’s quite nice and quite special. Hearing their stories and to understand the backgrounds of some of the people, because we don’t always get the chance to talk.”
If some regulars don’t turn up for two weeks, volunteers call them up to check on them which Michele says is “part of what it’s about; actually, being that community that steps up”. The volunteers do their best to bring people back together after the experiences of the pandemic and get to talking with each other.
Ian Bowles, a grandparent who is a regular visitor at the Hawker Centre shared about his experience at the café.
He reminisced about a lengthy conversation he had had with a woman who told him the story of how she met her husband while trying to catch a lift to somewhere in North London and ended up marrying him.
The fact that he had such an animated conversation with a stranger was eye-opening for Ian.
“It is very good for you. Especially if you are old at home (with) a different perspective.
“I have my wife at home, but I do not chat with her for three hours, part of which is because she knows my life’s story. (However) the conversation with that lady was such a different perspective,” said Ian.
Michele is grateful to the Kingston Council and YMCA for providing the Chessington and Hawker Centre spaces free of charge and looks forward to sustaining the initiative in the future.
If you would like to volunteer for New Era, drop them an email at email@example.com.
To know more about Kingston Carers’ network and Stephanie’s initiative, drop her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.