Christmas shelter’s founder steps down

This Is Wiltshire: Betty Spence, founder of the shelter, who is stepping down Betty Spence, founder of the shelter, who is stepping down

COMMUNITY stalwart Betty Spence is retiring from Christmas Care 25 years after founding the yearly homeless shelter.

The shelter, which is open from 11am on December 24 to 11am on December 28 at the Queen’s Drive Methodist Church, has welcomed hundreds of Swindon’s homeless and poor through its doors every year since 1988, offering a warm bed, plenty of food, and the chance to see a hairdresser and a chiropodist.

And since 1988, Betty and her team of voluntary trustees has fought to keep the centre open, relying on the time of volunteers, generous donations, and a bit of Christmas luck.

Betty, 77, said: “In 1987 we had a meeting at the church and a man came to talk to us about what the Bishop was doing to help the homeless.

“He told us that homeless people in Swindon were having to go to Bristol at Christmas, and I thought that there really should be somewhere in Swindon for us to look after our own people and not expecting people in Bristol to take care of them.”

Betty was given only £40 to start the project, which required her to rely on donations and the generosity of the people she appealed to.

She managed to pull together a group of eager volunteers to help her with the preparations, and since by this time it was already nearing Christmas, they decided to get things ready for the first Christmas Care shelter in 1988.

What held Betty back was finding a suitable venue, and by the following autumn all her eager volunteers had given up on the project altogether.

The former nurse, who worked at Princess Margaret Hospital, said: “And then one day I was at St Paul’s in Covingham and I was walking past and I heard in my left ear something saying that this was the place.

“I said to myself I better find Brian, the vicar, and then I saw him walking down the road and I called to him and asked him, and he said yes.”

By now it was the first week of November, and Betty had little more than a month to get everything sorted, including volunteers to run the shelter, food, bedding and clothing for the visitors.

Betty said: “it was only four weeks away and I had a phone call from St Michael’s Church in Highworth, who had heard about what I was trying to do and wanted to offer their support. And it just went off from there.”

After her retirement, Betty will be crowned Life President of the Christmas Care shelter.

“I will miss it and I will probably still be involved but everyone has said that I have done my bit and it’s time to step back a bit,” the Park North resident said.

“But I know the team of trustees will carry it on and keep doing a good job.”

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