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TWO DECADES OF LOCAL SERVICE RECOGNISED IN HEMEL HEMPSTEAD

21st January 2016 

For almost twenty years the Hemel Hempstead church has found a way to support some of the most vulnerable people in its community. The local women's refuge provides a safe haven for women and families experiencing abuse and violence in the town. Last month the church's long-term commitment to serving its neighbours was recognised by the charity which operates the centre.

Graham Lucas, HEMEL HARVEST FOE REFUGEa long-time church member, is the refuge's contact person in the congregation. He explains how the church's partnership with the local Women's Aid came about. "It started after our Harvest Festival. We wanted to give away the food we'd collected, but found that the list we'd been given by the council of needy people was out of date." 

Frances Johnson, a founder member of the church in Hemel Hempstead takes up the story, "we went to people's doors with the parcels, but they turned us away. We needed to find somewhere to distribute the food and so we thought we'd see if there was a refuge that might need it."

However, due to security concerns, it was impossible to find and make contact with the refuge. Eventually, Graham contacted the police. "They passed on our details and we got a call the next day. We've been giving our Harvest collections to them ever since!" 

Soon the church found other ways to help.HH TOY SREVICE A toy service was held at the start of December with the gifts going to the children living in the refuge. The service became an annual fixture in the church calendar and over the years some of the staff members came to take part in the service and thank the church for its support.

Wanting to spread their support throughout the year, the church quickly added a collection of Easter eggs every year so that the families in the refuge could enjoy a seasonal treat! 

What makes this generosity even more remarkable is the fact that the church has never met any of the people it gives gifts to! Graham explains, "Because the safety of the women is paramount, the refuge collects the gifts from the church." Only one church member has any contact details.

But this hasn't stopped the church from supporting the refuge. 

After several years, the Women's Aid again turned to the church for help. HH EASTER EGGS FOR REFUGEThey needed a safe, neutral location, where they could hold courses and counselling sessions for women who had endured trauma and abuse. As they heard the need being explained, the church responded in the only way possible. They turned over their hall to the charity one night a week. For years the church freely donated its space, happy to find a way of meeting the very real needs of the community it is part of.

"When I went to the church hall to let them in, I could see how scared some of the ladies were, they were physically shaking", recounts Graham. The Women's Aid used to run cycles of 10-week courses, sometimes with as many as three groups a week. "They truly were life-changing courses," Graham continued, "by the end of the course they were staying to talk with me and you could see the difference in them." 

Years later when he was invited to attend an annual general meeting, one of the women took Graham aside and told him, "Those meetings hosted at your church changed my life. Thank you so much."

When the local Women's Aid reorganised and became part of the Hightown Group, the church hall was no longer needed, but the local refuge could still count on the support of the church. 

"Last year we had an urgent request from the refuge", explained Graham. "They had a shortage of toiletries and cosmetics and asked if we could help." Within weeks several boxes had been donated by members and the church keeps a box in the corridor for ongoing collections.

Every Easter the stage behind the platform gets filled with eggs and treats, and at Christmas toys are piled up high under the tree by church members, young and old alike. This year in addition to the toys, toiletries and other gifts were included so that the children in the refuge could wrap and give gifts to their mothers. 

And of course, the event that started it all those years ago, the annual Harvest Festival continues to be a service of thanks to God for His goodness and an opportunity to share His generosity with those in need.

But this Christmas was different. Graham was able to stand before the church and share with HIGHTOWN REFUGE HEMEL CERTIFICATEthem a gift from the Hightown Group. 

Earlier that week, representatives from the refuge had come to pick up the toys and gifts. After they had been collected a package was handed to Graham. Inside was a Certificate of Thanks recognising all that the church had done for the refuge over the many years. Graham was delighted to be given the opportunity to present the church with the framed certificate during the special Christmas programme.

As he reflected on almost twenty years of support and service given by the Hemel Hempstead church Graham says, "The church has helped to change the lives of hundreds of women, both through our gifts and the courses held in the hall. I'd like to think that if any of them ever found themselves in difficulty in the future, they would know that there was at least one place where they would find help."

[Andrew Willis]

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