Written by guest blogger and regular volunteer, Sam Slatcher
I’m the 25 year old PhD student who was mentioned in the last blog. If you’ve been at the café, you’ll have seen me most Wednesdays soaking up the experience of ToastLoveCoffee. The PhD (you can read more here is related to my volunteering at the café and explores how Near Neighbours funded projects (such as TLC) create spaces for encounters across different backgrounds in Leeds, Dewsbury and Bradford.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve been volunteering at the café not only because I genuinely love being part of TLC, but also because the only way to capture the stories is to participate in the experience. In many ways, Anna and those who contribute to the blog already capture the experience by telling the story of the expectations and hopes of the day, and then the surprises and joys the café brings. This week I thought I’d have a go…
I arrive at around 9.30am. I rush in as I know that a lot of effort goes into setting up the café; ensuring the posters are in place, the tables are unfolded, the coffee is on the go and the cakes are neatly arranged. However this week, I walk in to find a perfectly arranged café with the trio of women who make every week possible, in a “deep political conversation”. I am surprised at how homely the café seems to be. Perhaps the warmth of the café set against the wet and windy morning helps, but there seems to be an air of calm today. I exclaim “ah, home sweet home” and one of the women remarks “ah, that’s what I said when I walked in” and we all laugh at the serendipity of the moment.
Another volunteer appears with rubber gloves on, and I can see the floor sparkle with a clean glow. That certainly adds to the homeliness. I ease into my shift with a coffee and a catch up with the team. Just when I wondered whether it would be a quiet day, a whole group of people turn up, walking through in twos and threes. It is an English class from RETAS (Refugee Education and Training Advice Service). These people meet on a Wednesday at their centre down the road. They are all seeking asylum in Leeds; people from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and many other countries. The place lifts with energy and the volunteers are on it! (When I say ‘on it’ I am overlooking the fact I managed to burn the toast twice, and spill the coffee once – I hope I still managed the ‘Love’ part of Toast Love Coffee!) But the surprise of who might be round the corner makes every Wednesday for me.There must have been twenty or thirty people present once the end of the group had come through the door. Tea, coffee, flapjack, banana cake, brownies were all being enjoyed and I could see genuine conversations of interest and curiosity take place.
I think it’s fair to say this is a café where ‘Love’ is actually more central than you think. One of the moments that took me by surprise yesterday was when I realised I was asking people’s names as I served them. And I think what motivates this is the ethos that the volunteer team have adopted. I don’t think I would ask for people’s names if I was serving in any other café. And yet here at ToastLoveCoffee, I get the sense that everyone matters and that names are important.
Towards the end of the morning, it was incredible how the atmosphere shifts. One moment TLC is buzzing with energy and interaction with friends from RETAS (I say friends, because people left smiling and I noticed a few hugs exchanged!) and the next it becomes an impromptu Mums and Tots group; Two mums, four babies – two sets of twins – and a toddler become the centre of attention as we laugh at the likelihood of two twins turning up!
I also met a law postgraduate yesterday who asked me, ‘so do you interview people here?’ which made me think about my PhD (I very easily forget in the enjoyment of it all) and I have to say, I don’t ‘interview’. I haven’t quite put my finger on why not. Should I have been more proactive and asked people whether I could have permission to interview them? Maybe some academics would encourage it. However, I think if I did I think it would be forced – at worst turn the café into a formality that it isn’t about – and to be honest I would probably miss the surprise of it all, the unexpectedness of every new week of ToastLoveCoffee. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of it. Thank you Anna and the team!