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Ticket to a Magical World

A quarter of a century ago, three nuns went to live on a housing estate in the north east – and today, their legacy is changing children’s lives. Joanna Moorhead went to visit.

It’s 4pm on a weekday afternoon, and excited, just-out-of-school children are arriving in their droves at Kids Kabin in Newcastle. It doesn’t look much from the outside – a fairly unassuming brick building in a run-down shopping centre – but for the next couple of hours these youngsters, many from families who live below the official poverty line, will be transported to a magical world where they can get stuck into making things, painting, cooking, singing, dancing – or just chilling in a den, or chatting to their friends.

The Kids Kabin is a godsend for many of these children: and it owes its existence to three nuns who moved into this area, Walker in Newcastle upon Tyne, 25 years ago. Sister Christine Charlwood, who today is chair of the Kids Kabin charity, was one of them. She’s 91 but could easily pass for 15 years younger; she points to a block of flats alongside, where the nuns first came to live, as she describes how everything started.

The year was 1994, and Christine, a Sister of the Assumption, had long hoped that her order might be able to help a community in a deprived area. ‘I’m obviously motivated by Christianity,’ she explains. ‘But this isn’t about religion – it’s about solidarity.’ She explains how she came to understand what inequality meant very early in her life. ‘I was born in Singapore and the Malaysian couple who worked for my family had had 11 children, all of whom had died. And then they had another child, born on the same day as me. So my mother made double feeds; and this child, unlike all her brothers and sisters, survived.’

Living alongside people whose lives were being made difficult because of poverty seemed to Sister Christine to be something she could and should do; and her order agreed. Her superior suggested she should have a sabbatical to think about it, and she started looking for the ideal place to set up the project. ‘I looked at possibilities in London, Glasgow and Newcastle, and Newcastle seemed the perfect one,’ she says.

The move must have been daunting; Sister Christine, who has a fairly plummy English accent, tells the story of how a bus driver in the early days told her she’d have to learn to speak properly, if she was going to live in Walker. She and two others, Sister Pat and Sister Mary Anne, moved into a maisonette. ‘It wasn’t difficult to rent a flat – there were plenty of vacant homes,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t exactly a sought-after part of town.’

From the very first day, children came to the door to find out who had come to live on their territory: since the nuns have a dress code rather than a traditional habit, it wasn’t obvious that they were members of a religious community. But somehow, the word got out. ‘It was the era of the movie Sister Act, so they all had ideas about nuns from that,’ remembers Sister Christine.

The nuns knew hardly anyone in the area, but that didn’t matter: the locals extended a welcome, following the children’s lead. ‘Much later, someone said to me: we were so pleased when you arrived, but we didn’t expect you to stay,’ remembers Christine. ‘I was pleased about that.’

It was pretty clear from the start that many of the children who crowded into the nuns’ maisonette had needs that weren’t being met. ‘Some of them were so destructive, and I thought: if only they could do something creative with all this energy. So we started making things with them, doing painting and crafts – and it was clear that was something they enjoyed, it made a difference to their lives.’ Sister Christine applied to the Church Urban Fund and was given the money for a salary; an artist/teacher called Mungo Powney was employed to run the project.

The first child to sign up was a boy of about eight who turned out to have a huge family, so before long all his cousins were coming to the club after school as well, and soon there were plenty of youngsters. What the club offered, says Christine, was a space to have fun, to make things, to try something different; what it wasn’t about was religion, or meeting educational targets (although it did help with learning), or too much organisation. As long as the kids were safe, having fun and being creative, the remit was being met. ‘Play and fun are essential to the physical and mental development of children – and we could help provide it, because they discovered a sense of purpose, achievement and respect for others,’ she says.

The original Kids Kabin was run from an empty shop, but as its popularity grew a Lottery grant meant they could build a purpose-built centre, one where there was plenty of room for workshops and more: on my visit I’m taken on a tour that includes a pottery workshop, painting and woodwork studios, kitchen and a bike repair shop. One of the most inventive elements of the club has been its commitment to outreach: not everyone can get to the centre, so the centre goes out to the kids, especially during school holidays. Will Benson, its manager, talks me through his idea of reaching into the community: attaching items including a potter’s wheel, a kitchen complete with hob and sink, and an arts and crafts cabinet, on to trailers attached to bicycles, which he and the staff and volunteers take out to the streets. ‘It works brilliantly,’ he says. ‘Children come out of their houses to see what’s going on – it creates a real buzz. And we get kids who for whatever reason wouldn’t have come to the centre – it really expands who we can reach. At the centre, the kids are aged 8-13, but on the streets we have a wider reach, and children as young as seven and as old as 15 come along.’

Today, the statistics speak for themselves: in 2018 more than 700 children and young people have taken part in workshops, more than 1,500 pots have been thrown on the potters’ wheels, and more than 600 kids have taken part in street workshops. In the summertime, children who wouldn’t otherwise have a holiday are heading off to the seaside on residential trips; and for some, the experience of Kids Kabin has been life changing. Tyler, who first came to the centre when she was eight, remembers being shy and not keen to join in at first; as time went on she developed her confidence, did lots of woodwork and art, took part in a poetry project, and realised she had plenty of talents to share. Today, she’s an English graduate who’s writing a novel and training to be a teacher. ‘A big reason I got to university was Kids Kabin – they asked a lot about it and about all the extra stuff I was doing. They helped with job interviews, with talking to people,’ she explains in the charity’s
annual report.

For Sister Christine, it’s a pleasing postscript to something that was born of sheer instinct, and developed entirely organically, starting from the needs of the people. The strength of Kids Kabin, she says, was always that those running it – initially the nuns, later paid employees and volunteers – weren’t ‘officials’. ‘We weren’t social workers, and we weren’t from the education department or the council or the police. We didn’t represent any sort of authority – we were just providing a spontaneous response to a perceived need.’

Today, a quarter of a century on from its beginnings, Kids Kabin is about to expand to Middlesbrough, and Sister Christine is rightly pleased with what’s been achieved. Faith might not be to the fore at the project, but many young people in the north east have good reason to be grateful for hers, now and on into the years ahead.

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