On the morning she kitted her daughter out in a school uniform from a pop-up community centre shop, Colleen broke down and cried.
For months the mother of three — on maternity leave from a full-time job and receiving minimum pay — was lodging money in a savings club for the £180 uniform in advance of her eldest child’s first year at a grammar.
“I bit the bullet and went to the Ashton pop-up on the day it opened. I was able to get a blazer, two shirts, jumper and pinafore for free. I went home and cried my eyes out. The weight that was lifted off my shoulders was unbelievable.
“My daughter asked if it was a ‘pre-loved’ uniform and I said it was. She then told me to ‘pick up the money from the savings club and use it to pay our gas and electricity’.”
The Belfast school support worker doesn’t wish to give her name, but adds: “I’m sorry for getting emotional but my 11-year-old child shouldn’t have to ask if she is using a second-hand uniform or feel the need to worry about how I’m paying the bills.”
On one of the hottest weeks of the year, the Ashton Centre uniform shop in the New Lodge area of north Belfast is extending its opening due to demand.
Brightly coloured bunting and a balloon arch decorate the upstairs room where neat rows of freshly laundered uniforms are displayed on wooden hangers.
Following its donations appeal, the centre was contacted by a community launderette offering to clean and iron every single item.
More than 190 uniforms have been distributed to families over the past fortnight in an area where child poverty rates are twice the regional average, in excess of 43 per cent.
New school polo shirts, packets of kids’ underwear, tights, hair bobbles and pencil cases are also laid out.
“It’s all done with respect. Our thinking is: if you wouldn’t put the clothes on your own child, we’re not giving them to any other child,” says Ashton’s Fionnuala Black, the manager running the uniform drive.
“We also wanted it to look like a proper pop-up shop. So when you go in, you get a basket and are shown round. We have a room upstairs where the children can try on clothes.
“It has to be the whole shopping experience. I know they get it for free and many are donating items as well, but it’s that experience of buying a uniform for the first year of your new school. We want them to have that excitement.
“No child should be going to a school without a clean uniform. It’s a basic dignity.”
The centre’s head of childcare and family support, Christine McKeown, says they decided to change the language used to describe the shop and its stock.
“This year we advertised it as a ‘pre-loved uniform pop-up’ with a focus on sustainability. Families brought in items their children had outgrown and went away with other items in larger sizes. That changes the idea that we’re doing this because you need our help.
“You may be living in poverty and require this service but people are also using this as an environmental project. It helps remove the stigma — we’ve had a lot of people come in to recycle.”
An almost-empty rail was filled with winter coats last week; they were among the first items to be snapped up by families worried about rocketing household bills over the coming months.
Despite the school uniform grant for low-income families being increased by 20 per cent by Stormont’s Minister for Education, Michelle McIlveen, it falls far short of what is required for those struggling during a cost-of-living crisis.
Branded uniforms and PE kits in some schools can be as high as £500 to £600, leading to a spike in “swap shops” exchange projects operating in community centres, schools and shopping centres across the North.
“Just because you’re living in poverty doesn’t mean you can’t have what everyone else has. What we’re giving to people, it changes their outlook. They feel respected here,” adds Black.
“They open up and you get more out of them because they feel comfortable with you, you can support them in a lot more ways.”
Two flights of stairs below, at the front of the centre on a street facing a primary school, is Ashton’s latest project, The Pantry.
“We wanted to move away from reliance on food banks, and came up with the idea of a community food store with wraparound services — that’s really what The Pantry is,” explains McKeown.
Resembling a convenience shop, the store was set up through a grant from the Belfast Charitable Society for families with several children who pay a weekly £5 membership fee for groceries worth £40 over a 12-week period.
A till is at the front and items — from chicken fillets to nappies — are colour-coded according tod value while trained mentors work with clients (they must be referred by schools, GPs etc) on budgeting and cooking.
Pointing to the seat behind the till as she unpacks crates of fresh food, Ashton’s Karen McLean says she sometimes thinks of it as a “confessional chair”.
“Every time a new parent comes in they say: ‘this isn’t what I was expecting. It’s like a proper shop.’ They’re not coming in to food on tables like a food bank.
“By about week three or four we’ve built up a relationship and people are starting to open up to you. Then they will come in, sit on that chair and tell you if they’ve had a bad week.
“I previously worked in Women’s Aid and there’s been a couple of incidents of domestic violence. So people might come back a few weeks later and tell you they want to engage with services. I always think that you’re unpeeling that onion to see what’s going on underneath.”
Single mother Donna Maguire is booked for a noon shopping slot and is happy to chat as she wheels her buggy in.
Working part-time and not entitled to any benefits, she becomes emotional as she describes the project as a “lifeline”.
“You’re going every week so you get to know the layout of the shop. After the first time, you start planning meals in your head. You’re thinking, ‘that’s a red item and a blue item, and I can make a big meal to freeze.’ It’s made a huge difference to our lives.
“I don’t know how we would have got through the last couple of weeks without it.
“You keep watching the news and hear how bills are going to go up in October. I’m just hoping the stuff I’ve got now I can make last until then.
“But I’ve got no idea how I’m going to cope. It’s terrifying.”
Colleen is also among the 20 parents referred to the project since it opened in May (a waiting list is in place). Her husband, who has bipolar disorder, is on sick leave with statutory pay, she says. “I was lying in bed one night flicking through social media when I saw The Pantry. I thought, ‘come on, you’re really struggling here, why can’t you avail of this service?’ So I made the call and found out about the uniform shop too.
“The bottom line is that if I didn’t have the centre I wouldn’t have been putting food on my table. I wouldn’t have let the children go without but I would have went without.
“When I go back to work I know I can say to other families it’s okay to ask for help.”