Private members’ club. It doesn’t exactly conjure up images of an environment synonymous with a not-for-profit organisation. And yet, inspiringly, that’s exactly what lies behind the imposing black door of The House of St. Barnabas.
It’s impossible not to be delighted by the interior: wall panels are in bright colours adjacent to restored floorboards; imposing mirrors ornately framed and sumptuous velvet seating. Chatting guests under the gentle glow of majestic chandeliers and there’s even a secluded garden.
Originally a lavish Georgian house, the building later became a House of Charity, with a mantra set out by St. Barnabas – who went on to have the building named after him, before it was a family hostel then a women’s refuge “to help people in need, regardless of class, colour or creed”.
That’s precisely what its unique Employment Academy (established in 2006) does to this day. Acting not only as an learning facility, it is also as a home-from-home to graduates like Catherine who completed a twelve-week course specifically designed to nurture her out of homelessness and into paid work.
With a smile that belies the challenges she has clearly worked so hard to overcome, Catherine explains how – aided by support from her student peers, staff and assigned buddies – the programme she started just a few months ago had an instant impact on her sense of belonging: “Immediately, I was made to feel at ease and part of the family.”
She is – for the first time in thirteen years, working in a voluntary capacity and seeking employment with the continued year-long professional help that is given to every post-graduate.
As we hear her incredible story, she proudly makes repeated reference to the black belted Finery dress she is sporting – which she has only worn once before, at her graduation ceremony. After today, she says, it is being saved for eagerly awaited job interviews.
Catherine recalls how she “felt at home” during the course and while working as a chef in the kitchens of the House’s restaurant. This is where members relax, work or hold meetings.
In her open, straight-talking style, CEO Sandra Schembri relays how she has led her team and the House along a not-so-smooth journey of financial, legal and logistical bumps in the road.
“After a fire here in 2005, £1 million was spent to upgrade the property before re-launching it as a social enterprise the following year and all options, including selling the building, had been considered.” At the time, Schembri worked for a private concierge company that came on board “to facilitate the hospitality side of House of St. Barnabas, which supported the newly conceived life skills programme.” But the work didn’t stop there.
“Another £200,000 was required over the next two years to acquire ‘change of use’ status.”
Finally, the hard graft paid off and in October 2013, after a huge review, the House of St.Barnabas opened its doors – literally – as a private members’ club. And quite a club it is,with founding members including Glamour magazine editor, Jo Elvin; Jarvis Cocker of Pulp; and Ekow Eshun, who served as the artistic director at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Ensuring this starry team really deliver is the job of Ceri Sheppard, Employment Academy Director, who oversees the programme and the progress of its participants, each of whom she continuously praises “for their commitment to the testing four-day-a-week schedule” that spans “personal development, work experience, wellbeing, mentoring and technical training”. To give as broad a range of experiences as possible, students split equal time between the classroom and work placement roles in different areas of the House.
“Enabling exposure to a real-life business environment is invaluable, combined with sessions on C.V. and cover letter-writing, mock job interviews with feedback and training. We now have up to sixty students a year coming through the course. We started with eight just two years ago.”
Asked what she feels it is that really works about the programme, Sheppard continues, “It’s a dynamic mix of life skills, academic education and practical support. We remove barriers.”
Indeed they do. Travel fare and lunch is provided, as are weekly check-ins with mentors outside of the House environment, where students can talk freely and confidentially.
Catherine is in no doubt about the “confidence and integration into society” this backing has given her, and is embarking on newfound ambitions to climb the retail career ladder. Christmas at a globally famous department store is top of her list, as she states that for the first time in her life, “I know where I’m going and I know the steps to get there.”
Reflecting on why Finery is supporting Catherine and all female graduates of the programme with outfits of their choice as they enter the world of work, Caren Downie, Brand Director, comments: “It’s such a simple idea but so brilliant, making a difference to so many people’s lives. Not only the participants but also the club members who are truly delighted to be there. The enthusiasm is totally infectious and Finery are so happy to be a part of it.”