John-Paul Clark: These are the heroes who've kept Britain's lights on amid a Tory onslaught

CommonSpace columnist John-Paul Clark visits a local hero in north-east Glasgow who is helping people battle poverty and deprivation

MY lasting impression from having visited the Glasgow North East foodbank’s hub in Parkhead is that it is a factory and the manager, Tara Maguire, is a captain of industry.

Before I arrived at the hub at Calton Parkhead Parish Church, I envisioned the place as having the vibe of a disorganised jumble-sale type community event, with the food all kept in one hall and given out to those in need on a first-come-first-served basis.

After I arrived it was soon apparent that Tara was in charge of a tightly run distribution network, with food donations taking up almost all the space on the church grounds and volunteers working under various roles to ensure that the parcels are ready when needed.

This changed my life in an instant and I suddenly had a fully-furnished flat and could begin to plan ahead and escape the shackles of the homeless stigma that had crippled me for a year.

The hub also provides parcels for another five smaller foodbanks in churches at Bridegton, Easterhouse, Sandyhills, Shettleston and Riddrie.

Upon meeting Tara I remarked it felt like we already knew one another. We first connected online about five months ago, when she helped me get back onto my feet.

Back then I had not long ended my stint as a homeless person but was still struggling with an empty flat and no furniture. For three weeks or so I had been applying for grants with little success, and decided to seek help elsewhere. In a fit of frustration late one night I sent out some DMs on Twitter to some charities and community action groups asking if anyone had heard of a washing machine going spare anywhere. 

Tara responded within minutes and got on the case, sending out tweets to her benevolent followers. It wasn't just one tweet, either; she persisted for days on end until finally someone offered a second-hand machine.

Tara put me in touch with Margaret Devlin from Hamilton who was donating the machine and I arranged to collect. When I arrived at Margaret’s house and was welcomed inside it quickly became apparent that she was a saintly type, as she fussed over me and tried to empty the contents of her home into the small van we arrived in.

Tara Maguire

I left with a hoover, washing machine, kettle and toaster, television and various other items. If we had a bigger van she would have given me more. Margaret is just one of many the heroes who have kept society afloat in the face of the Tory onslaught against the working classes since 2010.

This changed my life in an instant and I suddenly had a fully-furnished flat and could begin to plan ahead and escape the shackles of the homeless stigma that had crippled me for a year.

I got onto Tara immediately and asked how I could repay her, but she told me to take time out to get myself back together and then get in touch. Weeks after we first connected I was stunned to learn that Tara, like me, had once hit hard times and slowly worked her way back up to where she is today. Not only was Tara a saviour, but also an inspiration.

I got in touch recently to arrange a meet up. Tara welcomed me into the foodbank and we initially had a chat in her office in the church. There I was introduced to her colleague, Lynn Pinner, who works on the administrative side of things.

Firstly, she led me into the waiting room, or front-of-house, where people come and present their referral and wait for a parcel.

READ MORE: John-Paul Clark’s 10-part story: Homeless in Glasgow

One might expect this to be a sterile environment, but Tara has made efforts to ensure it isn’t so and that her clients are at ease in what must be a harrowing process.

They come with their referral and then one of the volunteers will direct them to a table for a chat. Not only do they get some friendly words but also tea and biscuits or soup and bread, prepared by Martin.

This all normalises the process and helps to remove feelings of guilt and shame. It should be noted that a referral is needed to get a proper food parcel but Tara will never send anyone away empty handed.

On the day, as well as Martin, there were another five volunteers helping to man the operation: Alex, Bill, Davie, Jean and Leeanne.

Also present was a man from Parkhead Housing Association who Tara has arranged to come in once a week to provide information and support to her needy clients. Other days she has a hairdresser come in and give out free haircuts, too.

“The volunteers keep me going. Each one inspires me to do better, be better. I just couldn’t do this job without them.” Tara Maguire

I asked Tara about her volunteers, and she said: "The volunteers keep me going. Each one inspires me to do better, be better. I just couldn’t do this job without them. 

"They are all superstars and don’t ask for recognition or thanks, but it is so important their contribution is noted."

I stood mightily impressed but couldn’t help wondering where the parcels were coming from. In the waiting room there were only a few stacks of tins lying around. I wasn’t long in finding out as Tara continued the tour and the whole sorting process became apparent. 

We left the waiting area and I was led toward the vestibule and was astonished to find it rammed wall-to-wall with tins of food. Tara, though, seemed unimpressed and led me out into the church itself. Unbelievably, at the sides of the isles were stacks of tins going up the side of the church, covering the full length of the pews and stacked about four feet in height.

Then she kept on walking and took me to the main store which was a shipping container jam packed with more donations. And then there is also a second level to the church which is currently out of bounds to the public and used to store tins of food.

READ MORE from John-Paul Clark: Football for good: How St Roch's embodies the best of Glasgow's community and charity spirit

It struck me that we have regressed a few centuries with ecclesiastical action providing welfare that the state should offer. This certainly could not have been the reformation Luther had in mind.

Throughout, Tara was effusive in her praise of the churches. She has been helped along the way by many but would like to relay a special thanks to the Celtic FC Foundation, which provides tons of food donations on an annual basis, and in particular CEO Tony Hamilton, who she describes as her mentor.

She said: "Personally and professionally Tony has given me so much. I'm still learning to curb my enthusiasm at times, but without the support of the Foundation the service just couldn’t continue.”

Sorting all the food that comes in from such big donations like Celtic’s is too much even for Tara and her loyal band of on-site volunteers, so they bring in volunteers from outside or hold open nights where anyone can come down and help sort out the donations.

Reeling at the enormity of the operation I was taken downstairs again to meet another of the volunteers, Frankie Dunlop, at the final stage of the sorting process.

He works out of a small room and for anyone familiar with factory parlance he might be described as a picker – making up the parcels as the referrals/orders come in. When he has a minute he also doubles up as a delivery driver, taking parcels to the five other foodbanks.

The politics of austerity brought us foodbanks but people like Tara Maguire have kept the lights on in Britain amid this purge on the working classes.

The room is shelved with tins stacked in order lining the walls and restocked from upstairs on an almost daily basis. When a new referral arrives one of the front-of-house volunteers will bring Frankie the referral and he gets to work. Once ready, the parcel is then taken back through to the front-of-house and signed off.

The Glasgow North East Foodbank does not end there. Tara is active in the community, involving and educating children about foodbanks and why they exist. They hooked up with a local school, Bannerman High, and the results are commendable as future generations become involved and aware of the process.

Tara explained: "Bannerman High started as a chat on the phone with the modern studies teacher, Mr Boyle, as they were doing such topics as foodbanks in class.

"Then they became a link donor school and now we have kids volunteering regularly and receiving Duke of Edinburgh and Saltire awards. Added to that, they are quoting us in exam papers and UCAS applications. I am so proud of this – Mr Boyle just got it."

For Tara it is an all-consuming vocation. She doesn’t like to call it a job. While others moan about having work to do at home, or not being able to switch off, people like Tara cannot when there are folk inquiring about things at all hours of the day, like I had with the washing machine. This all comes second nature to her, being a single mother of two young strapping boys.

The politics of austerity brought us foodbanks but people like Tara Maguire have kept the lights on in Britain amid this purge on the working classes. Nobody wants foodbanks to exist, but we should all be thankful because they have spared much austerity-related deprivation.

Pictures courtesy of Tara Maguire

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