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Chester Healthy Eating Workshops (CHEW) is a new University of Chester student-led volunteering project, working in collaboration with Chester Aid to the Homeless (CATH). The project provides interactive cooking workshops for people supported by CATH.

According to housing charity Shelter’s 2018 figures, 320,000 people are homeless in Britain. This means that one in every 200 people in Britain are homeless and sleeping on the streets or stuck in temporary accommodation, including hostels and B&Bs. Estimates by local city agencies and charities suggest that homelessness in Chester has increased significantly over recent years too. The Harold Tomlins Centre, which is run by CATH, aims to transform the life chances and opportunities of their homeless clients in the most effective way possible, through advice, guidance and other opportunities. According to CATH, when service-users are moved to supported or independent accommodation, they often have difficulty cooking for themselves in a healthy, but budget-friendly way - which is where the idea for CHEW originated.

Having received grant funding from the Westminster Foundation, for the three-year project, student volunteers work in small groups to deliver the weekly sessions. Supported by the University’s Volunteering and Mentoring team, project leaders, Sue Jones and Dawn Clarkson, who are the President and Vice President of the University’s Nutrition Society, have helped the students to develop the project. They have worked in collaboration with CATH’s Operations Manager, Rob Whittall, and Support Worker, Georgina Ludgate. The training of the volunteers was carried out by the University’s Volunteering and Mentoring team, and Sue and Dawn.

Sue said: "I am so pleased to be involved in setting up CHEW. This amazing project is not like any other volunteering opportunity at the University of Chester and students who volunteer gain so much more. It is a great feeling to make a positive difference to the service-users by helping to improve their health and wellbeing and their feedback was so lovely. We encourage a positive and non-judgemental atmosphere during our workshops and by socialising over a meal at the end of each session, we aim to break down barriers between students and service-users, where they can feel at ease in a safe and secure environment. We are grateful for all the support from the Volunteering and Mentoring team, CATH and the Westminster Foundation, who have made all this possible.”

Dawn added: “We’re so proud of this project, which is giving CATH’s service-users the opportunities to gain skills and education in cooking and nutrition – which could greatly benefit their transition from supported to independent accommodation.”

Georgina Ludgate said: “CATH is an independent charity that works with some of the most marginalised vulnerable long-term homeless clients in Cheshire West and beyond. It is heart-warming to see both the welcome and respect that our clients receive from the student volunteers. The sessions are full of fun and the rapport built between all involved is genuine and honest. We feel that the students and clients take something away from each session. On behalf of CATH thank you and we are more than proud to facilitate these sessions.”

So far, the sessions have been very well received, with comments from the service-users including: “The best part of the session was conversations with nice people,” and “I enjoyed everyone getting involved in cooking together”.

Volunteers Kgomsie Ngwenya and Ciara McConnell, from the Nutrition Society, and fellow student Emma Gray, took part in the first session. Ciara said: “CHEW has been a great opportunity for me to get more involved with my community and help out those who are less fortunate than myself. I really enjoy cooking with the residents and chatting with them. They’re all so welcoming and appreciative of the cooking sessions which makes it all the more worthwhile! For anyone looking to volunteer, I would highly recommend getting involved with CHEW.”

The student volunteers also recently worked with University departments, Student Futures, and Hospitality and Residential Services, to host ‘The Big Broth’, selling soup to raise money for CATH. They raised £124, which was donated to CATH at the first cookery session. The unsold soup and bread was donated to For Futures (another homeless support service in Chester). The bread was donated to the University by Roberts Bakery.

Shaunagh Smith, Volunteer Coordinator at the University of Chester, added: “CHEW is one of six student-led volunteer projects we support at the University of Chester. The Volunteering and Mentoring team within Student Futures ensures that we have provided the project leaders with the skills and resources to lead their projects and its student volunteers. This project was set up to provide students with the opportunity to make a valuable difference to some of the most vulnerable people in our community. It has been fantastic to see the project grow from an idea to seeing the first session taking place and receiving such positive feedback! I am really proud of Dawn and Sue and the other volunteers who have given their all to make this project a success.”

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