Uniforms banks are inundated with parents who are desperate for help

Desperate parents who are stuggling to make ends meet as the cost of living crisis worsens, are turning to a valuable resource in Lisburn - school uniform banks.

With one bank based at Trinity Methodist Church in Lisburn, and another bank set up at Hope Church in Hillsborough recently, as well as smaller banks in local schools, these facilities have proven to be a lifeline for families who are finding it difficult to clothe their children for the new school term.

There has been strong criticism in recent weeks over the cost of school uniforms, with many calling for the government to take urgent action to make them more affordable.

However with the new school year looming ever closer, many local parents are turning to the SUB (School Uniform Bank) and the HUB (Hope Uniform Bank) for much-needed help.

Some of the volunteers at the Hope Uniform Bank

The SUB, which was started by Emma Davis at Trinity Methodist Church, has seen demand for help skyrocket in recent months, with some 30 to 40 families appealing for help every single day.

One local teacher, who had donated to SUB, quickly discovered just how much the service is desperately needed: “Last year I donated quite a bit of outgrown uniform to the SUB and was able to gain a few pieces for my daughters in return, which was brilliant,” explained Sarah Watson. “However their generosity blew me away shortly afterwards.

“As a teacher I gained two gorgeous little Syrian refugee girls who literally arrived with the clothes on their back and were placed into my class.

“They had none of our uniform and when the parents asked, via an interpreter, if I could help with uniform, I knew exactly where to turn as I knew I couldn’t meet their needs with the small amount of uniform kept in school.

SUB founder Emma Davis and daughter Blythe

“I sent a message to The SUB and within a day I was asked to come and pick up some uniform pieces.

“When I got there, the ladies in the SUB had literally provided everything and more that the children and family needed.

“From a full school uniform, including socks, underwear, shoes, they also provided the children and family with schoolbags, stationery kits, lunch bag, coats, teddy bears and toiletries.

“The look on the parents face when I passed it over still gives me goose pimples. I’ve never seen such gratitude and without being able to speak their language, their reaction said it all.

School unforms available at the Hope Uniform Bank

“The SUB also went out of their way and bought a bag full of school ties to give out to any child in my class who was a newcomer to the country and hadn’t yet managed to purchase the tie.

“These guys have a heart of gold. They are worth every piece of funding, donation or more that anyone can contribute.”

A local parent, Taylor Hill, also found the SUB invaluable: “I first used the SUB last year when it opened,” she explained.

“Having four children in four different schools means school uniforms have a significant cost as we aren’t able to pass down uniforms.

Blythe and Aunty Ann in the new SUB hoodies

“Being a low income family, we struggled massively in previous years to get all our children kitted out for school, and the two worst bits are always blazers and shoes. With our third child going into secondary school this year we were really worried about the cost of yet another blazer and PE kit alone.

“Without the help of the SUB we would probably end up spending around £800-£1000. Now all we need are a few bits and pieces. It’s also meant that we’ve been able to bring in our children’s uniforms that no longer fit as we can’t pass them down, to help out someone else.

“Every time I have come to the SUB I have been treated with dignity and respect, with the staff going out of their way to find me a blazer for my daughter last year. They always jump up to help you find what you need. When I mentioned my teenage daughter at one point, they even gave us feminine hygiene products.

“We, as a family, cannot thank the staff enough for everything they do for the Lisburn community. Thank you!”

The Uniform Bank at Trinity Methodist is grateful for all of the support the community has provided over the last year. “Thank you to Yvette and her daughter at the Vineyard church for organising a pencil case and stationery collection,” said Emma. “Also thank you to all of those who have donated so far.”

The Bank is always keen to accept new donations, and are particularly keen for uniforms from St Patrick’s Academy, Methodist College Belfast, Rathmore, and Inst.

Some of the shirts available at the Hope Uniform Bank

“We’re always in need of ties,” continued Emma. “Plain white polos are always useful, plain socks, sports items like hockey sticks, tennis rackets, football boots etc. As well as stationery and all uniforms, especially PE kits, both primary and secondary, and girls high school skirts.”

Pupils at Wallace High School teamed up with the School Uniform Hub to donate much needed items, which were gratefully received.

Jude Hawthorne, a teacher at Wallace, explained: “We first got involved with SUB last June when pupils within Wallace High generously donated the uniforms they no longer required.

“It was our privilege to take this clothing to SUB Lisburn to witness first hand the remarkable work done within, and the great need in, the community.

“It felt very much like a real uniform shop, with particular rails for shorts, trousers, kits, and school gear, well separated.

“We watched as families lapped the store, surprised to reach the till and be asked for a donation rather than a price per item.

“We look forward to playing our part again.”

More recently, the Hope Church in Hillsborough decided to set up another school uniform bank in the city to help local parents.

Bill Foye, the Senior Pastor at Hope Church explained that the bank emerged from a desire from the Hillsborough church to engage with, and support, families in the local community.

“We consulted with The SUB in Lisburn (Trinity Methodist) and Re:new in Lurgan (Emmanuel Church) who gave us good advice and encouraged us of the need for this service,” explained Bill. “After further research, we were unable to identify any other uniform banks reaching our main catchment area of Hillsborough, Dromore, Banbridge. Therefore, we decided to start one for the summer.

“Throughout the month of June, we contacted local schools to encourage them to advertise our existence and from mid-June we started to receive donations of uniforms.

“We were also grateful for the support of local politicians including Sorcha Eastwood, MLA, highlighting the work of HUB on her social media. This helped increase our growing visibility and we have been inundated with messages from people offering uniforms or seeking help.

“In the five weeks that we have been open, we have supported around 56 families with uniforms, shoes, bags, stationery and more.

“If we do not have what they are looking for, we take a note of it and either contact the school or appeal for the item on social media – our aim is that everyone gets what they need.

“We have had people from many backgrounds and nationalities and social classes. Increasing numbers of those seeking help would be regarded as working/professional families who are genuinely struggling with the rising costs at present. The cost of buying multiple brand new uniform items can be excessive, especially for those with children starting a new school.

“HUB is staffed by volunteers from the church and has been running every Monday 10 am-12 noon and from 6.30pm-8pm.

‘‘During August, we have opened each Saturday from 10am-1pm, due to the high demand.

“We do not charge as costs are minimum, but we have found that those who have come have been generous in their donations, which means we can buy in extra stock.”

Families have been grateful for the support from Hope Church, with Bill reporting: “A lot of families shared that they were ‘ just above’ the threshold for a uniform grant and were so grateful to get something. Others were especially grateful for sports kit, which was a huge expense in normal circumstances.”

One user of the service told the Hope Uniform Bank: “It’s a much needed community support idea so thank you very much for all you do.”

Another grateful parent commented: “As a mum of six this uniform bank is helping me more than you know.”

The bank at Hope Church will continue throughout August and on September 3 they will have a HUB Clearance Family Day.

“On this day we want to encourage the community to come and clear the stock, taking extra jumpers, trousers, shirts and anything they may need,” continued Bill. “There will be a bouncy castle, face-painting, hot-dogs and ice-cream, as a little celebration for all who have donated, helped and used the uniform bank.”

With plans to open the bank again next summer, and potentially one day a month during the school year, Bill added: “As a church we see every day the hurt and struggles of households trying to cope with rising energy, fuel, housing and food costs. Many families are struggling further with added uniform costs.

“In establishing HUB, we are driven by the words of Mark 5 verse 16 to ‘Let your light so shine before men’

“Our desire is this HUB offers some light and hope and demonstrates God’s love to the families that benefit in these challenging times.”

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The newly established uniform bank at the Hope Church in Hillsborough