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“Community Sponsorship wasn’t just pie in the sky - this was something very real on the ground that very real people were doing.”

Svenja Powell co-founded Canterbury Welcomes Refugees in 2018. We chatted to Svenja about who’s who in her group, support from local students and how to organise a fabulous fundraiser.

You and your friend Domenica spent a long time discussing whether or not you should take the plunge and start a Community Sponsorship group. What made you decide to go for it?

Seeing other church groups and the Salvation Army getting involved and actually welcoming families was the nudge we needed. It made us realise that Community Sponsorship wasn’t just pie in the sky - this was something very real on the ground that very real people were doing. We realised that we could keep talking about Community Sponsorship and worrying about whether or not we had what it took to do it…or we could get on and do it!

We’re very glad you did! Who else has got involved since then?

I think of our group - Canterbury Welcomes Refugees - as being made up of three circles. Firstly there’s our core group of trustees. In the second circle we have active volunteers who are mostly involved in English language teaching - some formally and some just by befriending. We also have people who help with practical things, like finding second-hand bicycles or designing fliers. These are generally people with gifts and time. The third circle is our wider group of supporters: people who are interested and positive and support us with donations.

How many people are in your group now and what kind of ages are your members?

We have around 60 people at the moment, many of them retired. We’re actively trying to recruit younger people and we've had some really fabulous involvement from students from Kent University. We needed a website but none of us had any idea how to build one, so we approached the university’s IT department. As a result, some final year students agreed to build our website for us pro bono, which was amazing!

I do think fundraising needs to be fun!

To become Community Sponsors, groups have to fundraise £9000. How did you do it?

Our church donated half of the Christmas collection to Canterbury Welcomes Refugees, so that kicked off our fundraising very nicely. Then we organised some events, including a big art sale and auction.

An art auction sounds fun. What did it involve?

I do think fundraising needs to be fun! It was a super evening. We were bowled over by the number of local artists who donated their original artworks to us. Our church gave us their hall for free and the chef from JoJo’s, a restaurant in Whitstable, provided food at cost price. So we had a buffet, over 100 artworks on display and a very entertaining auctioneer. It was a lot of work, but people had a really good time and we raised over £2500 in one evening.

Canterbury Welcomes Refugees is clearly a thriving Community Sponsorship group. What’s the secret of your success?

I think it’s a strong sense of ‘We’re doing this together.’ When we were preparing for the first family, my grandson became very unwell and ended up in intensive care. That meant my husband and I were out of the equation for a few weeks because we were very busy supporting our own family. I was concerned about the group, but I really did not need to worry because everyone just carried on doing what needed to be done. You do need someone to make decisions and move things forward sometimes, but really it’s a whole group of people that makes everything happen.