NEWS » The St. Peter’s Project

Backhillonline interviews Michael Coffey Trustee of the St. Peter’s Project

The St. Peter’s Project        

Backhillonline met Michael Coffey, Trustee of the St. Peter’s  Project, a point of reference and help for all the Italians who find themselves in difficulty  in the huge, exciting but sometimes unfriendly London.

The project was started by Padre Carmelo di Giovanni in the St Peter’s Church presbytery in  the 70’s. In the 70’s and in the 80’s, as Michael Coffey (who joined the project in 2006), told us, many Italians came to London, some of them couldn’t speak English and didn’t find a job. A consistent number of them started taking drugs, or were drug addicted already, and some contracted Hiv/Aids.

The St. Peter’s Project is now located at the Holy Cross centre (Kings Cross). The focal point is the “Drop in session”, for vulnerable members of the Italian community in London, every Thursday from 5pm to 8pm. The section in structured around a hot meal prepared and served by a group of Italian speaking volunteers.

The centre welcomes about 170 people per year, from 40 to 50 individuals per night.

The guests that come these days could be unemployed, suffering from mental of physical illness, homeless, or just to enjoy the company of volunteers and other guests.

Some of them have a relationship with drugs to varying degrees.

The age ranges from 18 to 75 and 90% are male, while the volunteers are mainly female.

According to Michael Coffey the session may attract more male guests because women newly arrived in London can find a job, for example in a bar, more easily  than men. More volunteers are female because probably women are more prone, by nature and education, to listen and take care of others.

Some different kinds of initiatives have been organised  over the years to support those attending the dinner who have specific need such as: an English teaching, legal assistance, help with house and benefit claims and psychological assistance.  

The St. Peter’s project is now developing its work with other agencies such as ACLI (welfare, employment and housing issues); St. Martin’s Connexions (homeless); St. Mungo’s (homeless) and The South London and Maudsley (SLaM) NHS Trust Stockwell Project (drugs counselling).

How is the section structured?

“The volunteers start setting up the session at 4pm. A few minutes before 5pm Onorina De Cristofaro, assistant at St. Peter church for many years, and other 3 or 4 ladies arrive with the food cooked in the church’s kitchen, because the holy cross kitchen is not big enough. At 6 the dinner is served by the volunteers. From 7pm to 8pm people can chat and relax. After 8 the volunteers clean up and debrief about what has happened during the evening.

The dinner represents mainly a reference point. The hot meal is very important to recreate the Italian atmosphere, together with the Italian language. The meal (usually a first dish of pasta and a second course of meat) is fundamental as part of the Italian tradition and as an aggregative moment for sharing  experiences and stories.  Also, given that the people attending the section most of the time suffer from poor health, it is very important that it is a complete well balanced meal.  For many of them it is going to be the most important meal of the week.

The aim of the section is to listen to these people and  provide them with a family atmosphere. Some of them have been coming to our dinners for 30 years. Onorina and some of the other ladies who do the cooking are  sort of maternal figures for them”.

How is the project sponsored?

“The project is sponsored by individual donations and fund raising events. Our Patron Davide Serra two years ago organized with the Italian Embassy a fund raising dinner which raised several thousand of pounds. We don’t get money from the government in the U.K. or from Italy.

 We are also a registered charity and every year we collect money through the Church”.   

How does one become a volunteer?

“We advertise through the councils of Islington and Camden.

 The volunteers must be available at least two Thursdays per month from 5 to 8 and they must be intending to stay in London for at least 6 months in order to create a familiar and trusty atmosphere.

As a first step we ask potential volunteers to come half an hour on Thursday to meet the other volunteers and some of the guests. Then they are invited for an informal interview with me and Padre Carmelo.

The essential qualities are being a good listener, reliable, and ready to work hard! Although the project is run by the Church, we welcome volunteers and guests of any faith, or none at all.

Volunteers also attend a brief course in which we explain what we do and our rules, particularly around confidentiality and the boundaries between guests and volunteers.

The St Peter’s project can really make a difference in the life of a person who is in difficulty as it happened, for example, with an elderly man who had been long-term homeless in London.  Working with other agencies and the local Authority, the project’s volunteers found a safe permanent accommodation for him.  

Giulia Lombardo and Michael Coffey

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