Where would we go if we couldn’t come here?

“There’s nowhere else like this in Manchester.” says Joe. “Where would we go if we couldn’t come here?”

I dont know the answer.

Joe and I are sat with a bunch of other clients of Back on Track in Manchester, which was set up over 40 years ago to help people rebuild their lives after problems with homelessness, substance misuse, mental health and offending. I’ve just started work as the fundraising and communications officer there, but probably everyone else is here to meet one of the charity’s funders, and to tell him about what attending the centre has helped them to achieve. It’s also a good chance for me to meet the clients. I introduce myself and try to strike up friendly conversation as we wait for the funding chap to arrive.

“I’d be sitting at home bored out of me brains if I couldn’t come here.” says Claire. She’s very talkative, thankfully, and so is Jim. Derek seems cagey. Maybe he doesnt know anyone either? I ask him how long he’s been attending. “Only a few weeks.”

We’re sitting in Swan Kitchens, the in-house cafe at Back on Track, in Manchesters Northern Quarter. The cafe is staffed by volunteers and service users of Back on Track. There are similar centres around Manchester, but I’m impressed with the the progression routes at Back on Track, which offer real work experience opportunities, including a chance to explore a career in catering. The cafe also provides cheap and nutritious food and drink for the people who use the centre. The cakes look amazing. “Are they just for the funder?” I ask. “No, you can get them everyday here. They’re too nice though. You can’t stop eating them!” says Claire, laughing.

Photo by Paul Crudgington. http://www.paulcrudge.photography

The funding chap arrives, and we all get a chance to sample the cakes. Claire was right, they’re very moreish. Thankfully they’re small enough to sample more than one. Derek is starting to open up. He likes the I.T. classes, as they help him to look for work. Jim’s showing photos of his family and Claire’s talking about aerobics as we all eat cake.

I’m given a question sheet by Sam, the senior employability coordinator, and asked to take notes. “How has attending Back on Track helped you?” I ask. I’m taken aback by the responses, and how comfortable my new friends are about sharing their very personal stories. I’ve only known them 30 minutes. I’m not sure how to respond other than to say thanks, and to try to empathise. I wish the funding chap had heard what I’d just heard.

Suddenly he’s at our table. “I’m Norman” he’s says, shaking my hand. I introduce everyone. “And what do you do here?” he asks. I explain my role, and how useful his visit is being for me. He turns to Derek, who launches straight in with the story it took him half an hour to tell me. Claire and Jim do the same. I’m extremely proud of them. Claire goes on to tell Norman how she was nervous about coming at first, but everyone at the centre made her feel totally welcome. “Yes it’s important to have somewhere to go” replies Norman. I agree.

“Is your post a full time post?” he asks me as he’s about to leave our table. “No. Just for 12 months,” I answer, “but I’m hopeful it’ll be extended”. “Yes. Good luck.” says Norman. “It was lovely to meet you all.” I agree with that too.

After Norman leaves I thank them all for their honesty. Derek looks confused. I suggest that it must be hard to talk about the difficult times he’s had. “It doesn’t define me.” he responds. “It’s just something that happened to me that I’m trying my best to deal with. I’m not a member of any kind of exclusive club. What’s happened to me can happen to anybody. It could happen to you.” I’m shocked, but I know that he’s right.

We say our goodbyes and wish each other luck. We’re all on our own journeys, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again. They’ll probably find me in the cafe, it seems like a nice place to go.

Photo by Paul Crudgington. http://www.paulcrudge.photography