In the first article, we thought we’d start with someone very special indeed: Meryl Praill, CEO and founder of the Newbury Soup Kitchen.
We popped over the road to talk to Meryl about the charity and the vital role it plays in the community.
Meryl was a full-time Mum and a qualified nanny. She’d run a successful recruitment business in London and had devoted herself to raising children since moving to Newbury. Her husband was self-employed, and things were going well for the family of five. Then recession hit. Companies owed them money and the family found themselves with no food in the fridge and at risk of losing everything. Meryl was also undergoing spinal surgery at the time. Experiencing for herself how quickly things can go wrong inspired Meryl to volunteer at a foodbank held at The Salvation Army.
About three years in to her 6-year stint at the foodbank, Meryl asked The Salvation Army about starting a soup kitchen to cover the two days each week when there was no food provision in Newbury. They agreed, and Meryl set her recruitment skills to work to find volunteers, the first of whom were former foodbank colleagues. The first session was a Thursday in January 2017. Eleven people turned up, which Meryl was quite impressed by. Within three weeks, they were feeding forty.
When Meryl first volunteered at the foodbank, she started to learn first-hand from homeless people about the issues that they face, such as problems with addiction and mental health. She also points out that they are not all rough sleepers. 62% of homeless people are ‘sofa surfers’, which brings with it its own difficulties: formerly close relationships are strained and sometimes deteriorate altogether. Meryl was told about other issues that people faced beyond homelessness, such as needing a haircut or a pair of shoes. She knew she could help. She spoke to Newbury Soup Kitchen success story Phil, an ex-rough sleeper for whom the charity had been able to secure accommodation. Phil is a graphic designer who continues to support the Soup Kitchen with his work. They decided to do food sessions on Saturdays, too, and the support and outreach service began to grow.
At the beginning, the Saturday operation was run from Meryl’s car, while the main Thursday sessions were at the hall. Waitrose and Tesco supported her with fresh fruit and vegetables, and provisions were stored in her house. It was around this time that she met Adrian Smith, Swift CEO, at a volunteer recruitment event at which she was speaking. Adrian was attending to see how he could help, as he had been shocked to learn that, following severe relationship problems, one of his employees was sleeping in a tent.
The following winter, Adrian contacted Meryl and explained that, rather than buying gifts for clients, he wanted to help. Having given it a lot of thought, Meryl asked about getting a van. So, in early 2019, Meryl’s car became hers again. The Newbury Soup Kitchen now had a Ford Transit, and momentum started to build. The charity was now fully set up and had begun to expand beyond food to offering sessions with community nurses, chiropodists, dentists and hairdressers once a week in the hall. The main session of the week was a three-course, sit-down meal for sixty people.
Then Covid hit and things were thrown into complete chaos. For a while, the soup kitchen offered takeaway but, as the crisis worsened, that soon stopped. The Government began to offer accommodation in hotels to homeless people, so the Newbury Soup Kitchen went mobile. Amazingly, during the first lockdown, Meryl and a small team, working seven days a week, delivered 5500 meals to people in accommodation.
In August 2020, the soup kitchen returned to takeaway food provision. The operation had outgrown the Transit van, so Meryl sought advice from Swift and was able to secure funding for a fully-fitted mobile kitchen vehicle. Now that lockdown is over, the mobile kitchen is used for their sessions at Newbury Wharf on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
During lockdowns, several volunteers had to isolate. The pressure began to take a heavy toll on Meryl: running a charity in a national crisis out of a family home became impossible. Adrian was aware of the problem so asked if Swift could help. He invited Meryl to view a 3000 sq. ft. unit in Hambridge Lane. Knowing what a difference it could make, Adrian handed Meryl the keys. Although the crisis was very much in full swing, Meryl and the team were determined to make the most of the space. They sought planning permission and secured funding to turn the unit into a commercial kitchen, storage facility and office. The Newbury Soup Kitchen had a new home and Meryl had her own one back.
As of today, the Newbury Soup Kitchen cooks over 120 meals a week across three sessions. As well as extra meals such as pot noodles for people to take away, the team cook hot meals with frozen and fresh ingredients provided by Waitrose and Tesco, whose support is massively appreciated. Rob and Julie, the volunteer chef and kitchen manager, generously give up their time for the greater good. It is truly a team effort.
Last year, the Soup Kitchen named Will Young as its Patron. Will grew up locally, and his mother was already a loyal volunteer. At home during lockdown, Will saw the amazing work Meryl and the team were doing and was inspired to help. He has spoken movingly about the importance of mental health, which is a major concern among homeless people, and provides practical help as well as important visibility to Meryl and the team.
The future of the Newbury Soup Kitchen appears secure. Even the kitchen appliances, which were installed following a fundraising exercise that was supported by National Instruments and BBC Radio Berkshire, can be moved when the time comes. Meryl knows that she has the full support of Swift whenever she needs it.
Meryl and the Newbury Soup Kitchen volunteers’ tireless efforts are truly remarkable, and it is people like them who make this community what it is. We hope that, by shining a spotlight on their amazing endeavours, you might be inspired to help. Please bear in mind that the Newbury Soup Kitchen needs help throughout the year: it is not a seasonal charity.
If you’d like to learn more about the Newbury Soup Kitchen, please visit their website.