By Owen Sheppard, local democracy reporter
“We were just thrust into it – having so many clients. We went from working two hours a week to 80 hours.”
Taken out of context, you might think those were the words of an entrepreneur who has struck gold with a unique idea that had quickly made them a fortune.
Although her idea was a brilliant one, these were actually the reflections of Monique Newton, 28, on how her little charity, the Smile Brigade, had roared into action at the start of the pandemic.
This time last year, Ms Newton and a troupe of volunteers, many of them furloughed and looking for ways to help in a crisis, were making hot meals for hundreds of residents sheltering in their homes.
By their peak in June 2020, The Smile Brigade had been making and delivering free dinners to 1,100 people dotted around Fulham, Hammersmith and Chelsea, up from 70 just before the spring.
Their months of toil took place inside a little hall on the 1960s-built Clement Attlee estate in SW6, with 19 high and low-rise blocks. Whilst not the most loved and looked-after address in West London, it goes to show what an invaluable resource an easily-taken-for-granted hall can be.
Explaining how the community pulled together, Ms Newton, a former mental health care assistant, said: “There’s six staff and we’ve had 475 volunteers in total who all helped.
“We were originally doing a community kitchen where people could come for advice and to socialise and have a free meal, and we never asked for proof of address or income.
“When the pandemic hit, the people who needed help became residents who were shielding and needed deliveries.
“We had no idea how much it would grow. In the first week of lockdown we had 200 new referrals from the council. Suddenly we were working 80 hours a week.”
“It was like Ready Steady Cook, we didn’t know what we were getting each time. We also get donations from the Felix Project and City Harvest,”
After the cooking, another team of The Smile Brigade’s volunteers with cars and vans were scheduled with lists of addresses to deliver to.
Riyadh Chowdhury, a furloughed chef from the Rylston pub, said: “We’re doing 300 meals a day freshly cooked, and pre-made meals to go in the freezers.
“And every meal is tailored for people who have allergies or might need gluten free.
“We prepared Christmas dinners for so many people with touches like Yorkshire puddings. There were five consecutive days of deliveries and we worked even on Christmas.”
The 34-year-old continued: “It’s lovely to help so many people and we just did as much as we could.
“During the first lockdown we really didn’t know we would need to keep going for all this time, but we have.”
In 2019 the Clem Attlee was labelled in research by the Minister of Housing Communities and Local Government as being in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas in England.
A well-known face on the estate, Amanda Simpson, was keen to highlight how the efforts of so many local volunteers contradicted the stereotypes attributed to Clem Attlee, and estates like it.
“People like living on the estate,” said Ms Simpson, a 61-year-old former teacher who previously chaired the estate’s residents association.
“There’s a demonisation that doesn’t reflect the reality.
“If you live in a block like these, you do know your neighbours. Whereas people don’t necessarily if they live in a street.
“It’s a lot more transient in most places but on this estate people don’t leave. It’s more settled, like a little village.”
She added: “‘high deprivation’ is a very unhelpful label. Ninety per cent of us don’t earn enough to live elsewhere in Fulham. People are in work, but they are teachers and nurses or working two jobs.
“This is a pot of people here are doing really skilled, core jobs.”
As the lockdowns are lifted, Ms Simpson predicts the number of people needing the Smile Brigade’s help will “tail down”.
“It will become more of a food bank. We have got to transition and we need to work that out.”
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.