An interview with Debbie Fletcher BEM

We were delighted to hear that Debbie Fletcher, who managed FoodStop for over twenty years, has been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June.  She has been honoured with the British Empire Medal for services to the community here in Folkestone.   Debbie no longer lives in the town as she moved to Cambridgeshire last year to be closer to her family, but Ali Chambers has taken the opportunity to catch up with Debbie and ask her about her award.

Firstly, many congratulations on your honour.  Everyone here was absolutely delighted to hear the news but can you tell me what the award means to you personally?

It is a totally unexpected honour! When I first got the notification I thought my eldest son was playing a joke. It will be a reminder of some wonderful years of my life rich with amazing people. And it is for all of them…

Tell me a bit about how you first became involved in the Rainbow Centre.

Mark, my husband, was one of the original group who founded the Family Care Centre many years ago. This was in response to all the churches coming together under the leadership of Revs. Peter McKenzie at St Saviour’s  and Tom Bowman from the Baptist Church to come out from behind their church doors and recognise the needs of the local community particularly in East Folkestone, a designated ‘Urban Priority Area’ because of its many problems, and to do something practical together to meet those needs. For many years with four children growing up my Family Care role was to support my husband working as one of the volunteer drop-in councillors  at the Caretaker’s room in Mundella School and then as a Trustee. FoodStop emerged as a project under the leadership of Jenny Rawlings, Patricia Quaranta and Dennis Shucksmith. I was by then at a stage of life when I could commit more time and the project touched me.

What is it about working with the guys which means so much to you?

They have experienced so many breakdowns in relationships in their lives but they do not blame anyone but themselves. This is heart-breaking and often undeserved. Despite what life has dealt them they retain a humanity and empathy that leaves me breathless. Anger is often an emotion but it is seldom directed towards us, and if it is, that’s understood. They unfailingly demonstrate all that is good about being human while being at the bottom. It is always a privilege to recognise someone’s dignity in the face of extreme circumstances. I love their courage, their hope against hope, and just the personal exchange.

The FoodStop team is a remarkably loyal bunch of people.  What do you think motivates everyone to keep going?

Ah! There you’ve got me! FoodStop volunteers are just a breed apart! We used to say ‘Faceless people who stand on street corners in their woolly hats and thermals’. Their commitment is amazing, costly, and part of their extreme individualism. So, their motivation is individual but so so valued. They don’t talk about it or pretend to be experts on ‘homelessness’. They are just always there – handing out the cups of warm liquid, listening, working as a team.

Can you talk about any one client in particular who has made a real impact on you?

It’s difficult to single out any one of the individuals over so many years, amongst them those, whose pauper funerals Graham Coombs was there for. There were a lot of funerals sadly. Life on the streets whatever reason brings you there is not a long life. There were many great characters whose survival tactics were ever impressive. There were people who came back to show you pictures of a new relationship, or tell you about accommodation. But those who didn’t make that remain in one’s memory; their appreciation that FoodStop is always there, and hopefully an appreciation that there is no judgement. Also that if things go wrong there is no shame in coming back to FoodStop. There are so many precious individuals I could tell you lots of stories about, but of course that wouldn’t be appropriate. I miss them all so much!

At the end of last year, you moved from Folkestone to be closer to your family in Cambridgeshire.  How has life been for you over the past few months?

Leaving Folkestone was a big wrench after forty seven years. To leave all that community involvement at the Rainbow Centre was particularly painful. I was exhausted at first but now beginning to look at life in a totally different environment, and being there for family. I miss FoodStop, the amazing volunteers and all those who come, many of whom I’d known for a lot of years. I feel as if I walked out but know that strong teams will continue what I think is a basic outreach of the Rainbow Centre which will always be needed.