Imagine a double decker village hall on wheels—with comfy seating, play spaces, cooking area and games consoles. That’s what Open Blue has been using to take the love of Jesus to people struggling with rural poverty and isolation across Wiltshire for two decades.
Over fifteen years ago, the welfare officer of the Army’s 9th Supply Regiment asked us to help support military families living on a Ministry of Defence housing estate that was cut off from Buckley Barracks and its facilities on one side by barbed wire and from the nearby village of Hullavington on the other side by farmer's fields. Families without cars were stuck in what felt like the middle of nowhere because there was no safe way to walk there on foot.
To strengthen links in isolated towns, hamlets, and estates, a local church acquired and transformed a disused double decker bus into a mobile community centre with the help of many partners. Over the course of our 20 years travelling, we've hosted parent and toddler groups, after-school clubs, youth drop-ins, and elderly cafes. We demonstrate healthy one-pot recipes using seasonal ingredients. By giving local peacemakers what they require, we support them.
The blue bus originally offered residents both a caregiver & toddler group, and an after-school club when it stopped in the middle of the estate. The residents were really pleased with both. During the academic year, we discovered that weekly visits worked best. The caregiver & toddler group brought (mainly) mums together and assisted them in creating social networks of friends and allies. Many come from Commonwealth nations, and almost all will relocate in three years to a new location with new connections. The infants and toddlers relished playing with one another, meeting new people, and developing social skills. We sang songs with them, played music for them, and read to them. Local health visitors immediately realised that they could more reliably see the newborn babies and their mums by going to the caregiver & toddler group every other week. They remarked on numerous occasions throughout the partnership's existence that fewer cases of postpartum depression, as well as diseases and other problems, were detected in the infants early.
The after-school club was a safe space for primary school aged children to play and have fun together. Activities included craft, cooking, electronic, board and outdoor games. Healthy snacks and drinks were provided. All was free at the point of delivery. During the years that soldiers were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the local Anglican children’s worker, who regularly volunteered, was convinced that the friendship and fun that the children had at the after-school club helped them cope with having a parent serving overseas.
Having proved the need by taking the bus to the estate for a few years the MOD converted two houses into a community centre. Open Blue transferred the caregiver & toddler group and the after-school club to these facilities and was, for many years, the only provider of regular activities in the drop-in, as it was known.
COVID brought activities in the drop-in to halt. Open Blue was desperately aware that its communities - already isolated - could end up feeling even more cut off and so, in this and two other communities, activity packs were created for the children. Each month the craft, colouring, puzzles and toys were welcomed and looked forward to by the children and their families, until July 2021 when we were able to get the bus back on the road.
That summer the Army Welfare Service asked us back to help run a series of activities. Because the drop-in had fallen into disrepair during the pandemic the bus was needed back on site and it provided a brilliant chance to introduce our second generation bus to a whole new generation of army families. The Open Blue Fun Day - with the extra focus of interest that the bus provided - drew in more than 25 children and many parents got involved or looked on. With craft activities, cooking pancakes and games including cricket, football, frisbee and twister to play, the Army Welfare Service felt it had been the high spot of the three weeks of summer activities they had organised.
Following a further fun day in the half term of February 2022, using funding we had secured from Wessex Water we ran an after-school club for two hours each month between March and November. We regularly saw 20 to 25 children and many of their parents stayed so we were able to get to know them as well.
In the restored drop-in centre, we currently provide a youth club for secondary school students that is financed by the neighbourhood council for young people ages 13 to 18. We were handing out fliers about the youth club throughout the neighbourhood when one of the homeowners asked why we did not do something for the small children because he believed there was a real need. Who could disagree? To relaunch the after-school club and caregiver and toddler programme, we are now appealing for funding.
Whether they are travellers, members of the armed forces, or families residing on modest social housing estates with inadequate infrastructure, Open Blue helps people who are disadvantaged because of where they reside. For many people, other circumstances exacerbate their solitude. Soldiers from Commonwealth nations are occasionally more receptive to Christian presence and have people praying for them. There are plenty of places to travel with the big blue bus in a county like Wiltshire, which improves the quality of life for people who live in rural areas and helps to foster community. We are here to provide opportunity, including the opportunity to take advantage of the greatest opportunity of all. The key for us is to petition the Lord for workers—and resources—for the harvest as the post-pandemic momentum grows.
David Sandberg, Open Blue.
First published in MOSAIC September - December issue 2023