Jen Donnellan is bursting with enthusiasm one recent Thursday morning, despite a late night working on transforming a disused space into a vibrant community café.
Surrounded by off-cuts of recycled wood and vast scaffolding planks, she is in the final stages of a project that has been a real labour of love and will soon open its doors as a welcome hub to everyone in the surrounding neighbourhoods of Easton and Lawrence Hill.
Tucked away on Beaufort Street, just off Stapleton Road, Easton Christian Family Centre was home to a nursery for many years but much of the space has been largely unused since its closure.
Jen hopes her plan will not only breath new life into the building, but also create a welcoming, affordable cafe that will provide volunteer opportunities – particularly for local women – work to combat food waste and poverty and introduce a ‘pay it forward’ scheme so no one has to go hungry.
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“The mission is to create a welcome space for the community, and that means everyone but especially people who live in this part of Easton and in Lawrence Hill,” says Jen, pausing to talk on a wooden bench she made the night before.
“We will have fresh, tasty food that’s affordable and create an environment that people want to be in, where they can feel at home and also a place that’s family-friendly.”
Baraka Community Café, located between Easton Leisure Centre and Easton CE Academy, is due to open on February 4. The building is also used by other groups and charitable organisations, some members of which have already expressed an interest in volunteering opportunities, and church members will also be on hand to help launch it.
An American citizen who spent 20 years working in the corporate world, Jen came to Bristol to be with her partner and has been taking the opportunity to volunteer in the community, where she seized the chance to write a business plan for the church-owned space.
But she stresses Baraka Community Café is not about her, but a whole community effort. Members of the church congregation have been getting involved to make the space ready, including Octogenarians who have been using the building for decades.
The name, chosen from some 30 suggestions, has meanings in many languages and loosely means a blessing and continuity of spiritual presence.
The plan is to have a café run entirely by volunteers, with the exception of one paid manager. Volunteering opportunities will be offered to members of the community who might face barriers to work. They will be able to gain experience, qualifications such as food hygiene certificates and meet people in a welcoming, non-judgemental environment.
As Jen speaks, one lady sits quietly sipping a cup of tea in a spot by the kitchen door. She returns each day to the same spot and is welcomed as an old friend.
Through the hallway into another room, the Beehive café is fast taking shape, with vibrant, nature-inspired murals on the walls and sturdy furniture made – like most of the furniture in the café – using recycled wood from Bristol Wood Recycling Project. The intention is to create a dedicated space for families and encourage awareness of nature and sustainability among children in the urban environment.
The café has partnered with FareShare to provide produce, which enables them to sell good quality food at the lowest possible prices.
There will also be coffee from Wogan Coffee in St Jude’s and “the best chapatis in Bristol” from a woman who lives in the neighbourhood.
“I designed this for the community,” Jen tells Bristol24/7. “It’s definitely been a labour of love. We have to build it in a way that’s sustainable and easy for others to take on, we are working on an extremely low budget but that’s the way I built it – I know it can be done.”
Main photo by Ellie Pipe