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“By the time we got home, messages of support were waiting in our inboxes.”

Kirkby Stephen – or ‘Kirkby’ as it’s known by the locals – is a small, thriving market town on the edge of the Cumbrian Dales. Retired teacher Mike has lived and worked here for 36 years. An outdoors enthusiast who has white-water kayaked all over the world, Mike is currently taking on a new challenge: setting up a Community Sponsorship project. We spoke to Mike about how he and his team have got the whole town on board.   

Thanks for talking to us Mike.  First of all, what led you to Community Sponsorship?  

We’ve all seen the way war and extreme regimes devastate the lives of individuals and families, because the news brings this trauma into our front rooms. But then we just switch off the TV and go to our safe, warm beds. It’s easy to feel helpless about it. I spotted the Reset website and Community Sponsorship scheme and then spent about a year umming and ahhing about it with my wife Jill, my friend Carl and two other close friends.  Finally we thought, ‘If we can help one family, why not?’  

Tell us a bit about the Kirkby community.  

Kirkby is a very hands-on community. There’s a lot of goodwill here - people help each other. I spent 29 years teaching in the small secondary school here and I’m still involved through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Carl is a retired GP who worked in Kirkby for many years. So we know the community very well – we know the families, the culture, how things work.  Most importantly, we know how the locals respond when families arrive here from different parts of the country. It’s a very warm, welcoming community.  

You felt it was crucial to get the whole community’s feelings about the project from the get-go. How did you do it?  

Carl and I formed a double act. We asked for just 12 minutes of meeting time. I explained Community Sponsorship using extracts of videos from Reset, and then Carl described the insecurity of life in refugee camps. He has worked in war zones around the world with Médecins Sans Frontieres and he speaks very powerfully about what he has seen. We made it clear that at that stage, we weren’t asking for money or volunteer time. We were just looking for views, fielding questions and generally gauging community support. If community groups told us they didn’t think the resettlement project would work in Kirkby Stephen, that would be fine – we wouldn’t go ahead it.   

And how did community groups respond?  

Carl and I would leave after the presentations so that the groups could discuss the idea in private. Often, by the time we got home, messages of support were waiting in our inboxes. I have 20 very powerful emails and letters from parish councils, the county council, the district council, community support groups, the WI, the Rotary club, walking groups, conservation groups, junior schools and our secondary school. They’re basically saying, ‘You must do this. This project will benefit a family in need and it will benefit the community as well. We will support you all the way.’ We’re getting more messages like this coming through every week.  

That’s so encouraging! Has anyone voiced concerns about inviting a refugee family to such a rural area?  

There have been a few people concerned about how the family will find work. Part of my role at the school involved vocational education and I’ve got connections in hospitality, tourism, a local mail order supply companies, the services on the M6. There are lots of local businesses in need of staff. I can arrange work experience for someone and if doesn’t work, that’s fine, but if it does, a job may appear. The reality is that we have a strong work ethic in Kirkby and low unemployment. 

Has Reset been able to help you deal with people’s concerns?  

Reset has been incredible. The first thing I do when I have any difficult questions is speak to Amina from Reset, who’s an amazing support. She always gets straight back to me. The Reset website is unbelievable - if you sit yourself down and do some reading, you’ll find everything on there. But it’s good to be able to speak to someone, to be told, ‘Well, actually, you need to do this, this and this.’ Reset has also introduced us to Caritas Salford, who’ve agreed to be our Lead Sponsor.  

For many groups, finding a house for a family is a big challenge. How do you think you’ll manage in Kirkby?  

We’ve been really lucky – we’ve already found one. It belongs to one of the core group volunteers and his wife. It’s a spacious, fully furnished three-bedroom flat in town. There's a back yard with storage space - I'm sure people will be finding the family bicycles and that sort of thing. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from where I live and less than five minutes from the bakers, butchers, supermarket, health centre, junior and secondary schools.  

Speaking of schools, you’ve got three primaries in the area all keen to host the family, haven’t you?  

That’s right.  The secondary school is already considering training a staff member to teach English as a second language, in preparation for the arrival of the family.   

We hear your fundraising has got off to a great start too – tell us more.  

Before we’d even launched our fundraising campaign, local people had donated over £4500, which qualified us to work with Caritas on a fast-track application. Within the first 10 days of fundraising, our JustGiving site has recorded £8,555 from 39 supporters, 95% of our initial target of the £9K requested by the Home Office. We are speechless and OVERWHELMED by the community’s response. 

You must be raring to go! Let’s fast forward a year or two: what’s your vision for Community Sponsorship? 

I hope we’ll be welcoming a family, nurturing them, offering them a security and a chance of a brighter future.