Norwich Christian charity uses power of hope and home
Last year Levi Milsom was a troubled, homeless teenager with limited options. Today he is a happy, house-proud 18-year-old enjoying life, his music and some surprising pursuits, thanks to a partnership between Christian charity Hope into Action and a Norwich church. Jenny Seal reports.
Over coffee at Norwich’s Revelation café, retired Norfolk vicar Rev Gill Bridges (pictured left) is listening with interest as Levi Milsom (pictured right) enthusiastically describes the intricacies of heelflips, kickflips and other skateboarding tricks. The previous evening Gill and Levi had been to a modern line-dancing class, where Levi was just getting to grips with a Figure 8 move.
The generation-spanning friendship between Levi and Gill has developed over the past six months through their involvement with Hope into Action.
In December, Levi moved into ‘Joy House’ a home supported by Hope into Action and St Catherine’s Church in Mile Cross, the church where Gill is an active member. For two months Levi had been homeless, only avoiding sleeping rough through the generosity of a friend. In October he had been evicted from supported accommodation for causing a disturbance. Life wasn’t going well.
“I didn’t know what I was doing every day,” said Levi. “I couldn’t plan my week. I like to know what I’m doing. I was so stressed. I’d walk around the city or be outside all day with my mates, and then at night I’d go and stay at my friend’s.”
The Hope into Action team were preparing to open their tenth house in Norwich when they met Levi. An investor had bought the two-bed property in north-west Norwich for use by Hope into Action in partnership with St Catherine’s, Mile Cross. Volunteers from St Catherine’s formed a ‘Friendship and Support Group’ to welcome, befriend and support the new residents of ‘Joy House’.
Rach Hartley, Hope into Action’s Empowerment Worker who attends St Catherine’s Church, recalls Levi meeting the group for the first time prior to moving in. She said, “He wouldn’t look you in the eye, he would just look down. He had very little to say.”
What Levi did say at the meeting was that his favourite sweet treat was sherbet lemons. When he moved into ‘Joy House’ a couple of weeks later the first thing he saw on the kitchen table was a jar of sherbet lemons. Levi said: “I love lemon sherbet sweets so much. The sun was shining on this jar of sherbet lemons. It was like sun on a pot of treasure.”
Another lady within the church had made a cake with ‘Welcome to your new home’ written on it. “That was so special,” said Levi. “It was like nothing I’d felt in a long time. Having all this peace and love and the welcome, I was so excited.”
Gill Bridges is a member of the Friendship and Support Group and tries to meet up with Levi regularly. “Levi doesn’t have to tell me anything about his life before now,” Gill said. “I’m not there to report on him, he doesn’t have to report to me. I’m just there merely to befriend really, whatever that means.”
The two regularly meet up for coffee in the city centre. They have also been to Norwich Playhouse to see the dance company Rambert perform and Sir Ian McKellen’s solo show (Norwich Playhouse gives Hope into Action free tickets). And Gill, an avid line-dancer of 20 years, has introduced Levi to a beginner’s line dancing class at The Belvedere Community Centre.
“You get the hang of it”, said Levi, “but it’s not as easy as you think. It makes me so happy. I can’t stop laughing.”
Rach said: “I love that about the Friendship and Support Group - two people who may not otherwise have met each other doing something completely random and finding a connection through it that is wonderful to see.”
Levi, who is chatty, smiley and filled with hope for the future, is by all accounts completely different from the person who moved into ‘Joy House’ in December.
“I was waking up stressed,” he remembers. “I didn’t know where I was going. I had quite a lot of anxiety. Today I wake up in my own bed, go for a morning coffee and shower. I can plan what I want to do. I still have my bad days but I’m more settled. I look at things as an optimist now rather than a pessimist. Back in the past, I was always like: ‘no, things aren’t going to go well’. Now, I’m like: ‘I can do this’.”
Levi has recently secured his first job as a retail assistant for ‘B&M’ and in his spare time hones his talent for music and songwriting. In March, he performed one of his songs, ‘Rough’, at the Hope into Action conference in front of 300 people. “I had mad confidence after that,” said Levi. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Rach.
Levi has also played guitar in Café Services at St Catherine’s. “I love it,” he said. “I got scared on the first one. I was quite nervous. But then the second time around was good. It was like every time I look at somebody they were smiling at me. They’ve made me feel at home.”
He continues: “I’m definitely more open to religion. There have been times when I’ve prayed and stuff like that. It motivates you. The environment, the people and what it’s all about is nice and it’s not forced upon you.”
Rach said: “There’s no agenda. It’s just people who care about you, they like you and want the best for you.” Gill agrees: “Yes, that’s all. All of this kind of thing delights me. It’s just what we should be doing as Christians. Hope into Action is exactly that: real hope and real action.”
Hope into Action now supports eleven houses in Norwich, housing 30 people. If you would like to invest in a property for Hope into Action’s use or find out more about partnering with Hope into Action as a church you can contact Norwich Coordinator Tony Gray on Tony.Gray@hopeintoaction.org.uk