Baytree CentRe: an Oasis in the Middle of Brixton, London

Located in Brixton, in the London Borough of Lambeth, Baytree Centre lies at the heart of an area of great ethnic diversity, of a vibrant community that reflects the richness of many cultures.

The borough attracts a high percentage of immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, but it is one of the most disadvantaged areas of Britain. According to official government statistics, Lambeth’s population has one of the highest indexes of social needs in the country. It is ranked as the seventh most deprived area in England and the twelfth in the United Kingdom.

Baytree Centre is aimed at helping women discover the value of their family life, and to combine it, when necessary, with professional work outside of the home.

The origins of the work carried out in Baytree are to be sought precisely in the area’s deprivation. “Back in 1985,” says Marie-Claire Irwin, one of the first volunteers, and now Baytree’s Training Coordinator, “we started to develop here some of the activities promoted by the Dawliffe Hall Educational Foundation (DHEF), an educational charity. The need to care for the girls and women in Brixton was apparent. Before we knew it, the activities had begun to grow. We carried out a survey in the area to identify the most pressing needs.

“The results showed that women in the area wanted the knowledge and skills that would allow them to find good jobs: computing, English, nutrition, physical training, child care and child hygiene. So we started looking for premises where we could start running such courses.”

A building was found in 1987: a derelict warehouse. By 1995 it had been transformed into a training center complete with classrooms, computer bays, spacious rooms for meetings, and offices, a small cafeteria, etc. “We started activities when we could still use only one room, and at the same time we were trying to find the money to complete the rest of the building. For years we worked in the midst of the construction workers!” says Marie-Claire.

Thanks to private sector and local government funding, as well as European funds, the Center is now able to provide not just professional training courses for the girls, but also programs of family development directed towards the mothers and their daughters, during childhood and adolescence. It also provides a day care center, with many volunteers who want to help out. Besides the work training courses, there is a whole environment geared towards total personal development, including the spiritual dimension, which contributes to a solution to the poverty and other social problems of the area.

“Brixton has a multi-racial community, with a large refugee population, and high unemployment and crime rates,” Marie-Claire explains. ”There is poverty, but the worst poverty of all in this area is social. Many of the women are very isolated: I have met some who have lived here for twenty years and still do not speak English. My reaction to these situations, and my effective and constant desire of working to improve them, is born of my frequent reflection on the teachings of Saint Josemaría. In Christ is Passing By, for example, he writes: “There is only one race, the race of the children of God. There is only one color, the color of the children of God. And there is only one language, the language which speaks to the heart and to the mind, without the noise of words, making us know God and love one another.” He was concerned about both the great crises that affect all mankind as well as the problems and worries of those at his side. Therefore he said forcefully that we couldn’t be happy with giving a few coins and old clothing; we have to give our heart and our life.”

It is this firmly Christian conviction of the people who work in Baytree that leads them to appreciate the value of each person, over and above any racial or social difference.

“This is why the Center users are not exclusively Catholics or Christians. We are open to everyone: we are here to help any woman who needs us. We are here because we want to help society at large, and contribute specifically to the development of this local community. Baytree was born to fill a gap in this area, so that women may discover the value of their family lives and learn to combine them, when necessary, with a job outside the home. What we are trying to do is to strengthen the family by helping the women, in order to rebuild the social make up of the area.”

Romana, No. 56, January-June 2013, p. 112-113.

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