'We save lives and change lives' - Lisburn women’s centre a 'lifeline' for families during cost of living crisis

A women's centre in Lisburn has been described as a "lifeline" by service users, particularly when it comes to help during the cost of living crisis. The Atlas Women's Centre offer a huge range of services and programmes, with everything from confidence building, personal development, and classes to build up qualifications available.

The team are also now part of the Cost of Living 24 campaign - a group of sixteen charities teaming up to provide a one-stop service to provide support amid rising costs. It comes as 69% of people polled in Northern Ireland said the cost of living crisis had impacted their mental health, while 91% of women said they have had difficulty paying their bills as a result of cost of living increases.

Atlas work in collaboration with Moira Hygiene Bank to provide hygiene products for families who cannot afford items such as toiletries and nappies, and the team also signpost service users to other nearby services such as food banks for further support.

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Speaking to Belfast Live, centre manager at Atlas Women's Centre, Gay Sherry-Bingham, said the cost of living crisis is impacting them and their service users in a number of ways.

She explained: "Most of the courses we offer are free as we realise people can't afford it. They can't afford to survive, to heat their houses, so they're going to put their education and social interaction at the bottom of the list, and we know how important that is to people now.

"We do have charity buckets in each room and if people can put £1 in, because the centre is being hit by the cost of living as well, it goes back in to the centre, back in to providing support for the people who really need it. It has hit us hard as we rely a lot on donations and fundraising, and it's very difficult for us to run fundraising events whenever we know the people really want to support us, but if they're giving us a few pounds, that's a few pounds they really need.

"It's just having a knock-on effect on everything and everybody. Places like this are here, they save lives, we work together with an awful lot of organisations in Lisburn.

Centre manager Gay Sherry-Bingham speaking to Belfast Live at Atlas Women's Centre
Centre manager Gay Sherry-Bingham speaking to Belfast Live at Atlas Women's Centre -Credit:Harry Bateman/Belfast Live

"We save lives and we change lives, and without places like this, there are going to be an awful lot of people who are going to get sicker, they're going to live unhealthy, unhappy lives. It's very important people know about places like this, and know we're here to support them."

Rachel Benson is a crèche worker at the centre. Parents who call into the Atlas for a range of classes, whether it be art classes or literacy and numeracy classes working towards qualifications, can drop their children into the on-site crèche while they are there.

She said they have noticed a rise in the number of parents using their services who have needed further help due to rising costs, often not being able to afford the essentials such as heating their homes or providing nappies for their children.

"Economically parents aren't able to survive and it's as simple as that. I feel like the centre is a lifeline for a lot of parents," Rachel said.

"We would supply products from the Moira Hygiene Bank which are so generously donated to us, which we then share with parents who are unable to afford nappies, unable to afford formula milk for their babies, who are unable to afford food for themselves. Parents are on their bones - they have no electricity or gas, the cost of living has destroyed so many lives, and that has a detrimental impact on the children.

"We have done focus groups here trying to get feedback, and parents are saying they can't take their kids to soft play or the zoo. Some parents haven't had trips out in over four years because there's no money there. They literally have money to survive, and there are no luxuries."

The Atlas Women's Centre on Bachelor's Walk in Lisburn
The Atlas Women's Centre on Bachelor's Walk in Lisburn -Credit:Harry Bateman/Belfast Live

Sarah Craig is a parent who uses the services at the Atlas Centre, and said she has noticed things have become "really tight" due to rising costs. She said Atlas has been essential in helping her through.

She said: "I'm on my own with two children, and I'm hand-to-mouth with things like gas and electric, everything is on a real stretch. I need to prepare myself weeks in advance to have the finances sitting for gas, electric, or the food shop, or I've had to come to Atlas and ask for help with the food banks.

"It's been a really tight few months in particular. Initially when everyone was talking about cost of living, I didn't really notice it, but now it's at home and it's affecting me and I do notice it now.

"Atlas have been a great help to keep me afloat, because I don't have any brothers or sisters or anything like that to support me, I'm completely on my own with the kids. Atlas is my lifeline."

For any families who may find themselves struggling at the moment, Gay said they should not hesitate to call in, or reach out for support.

She said: "I can understand people would be nervous coming in here and for the many years that I've been here, people actually walk past the door numerous times and don't come in. But honestly please come through the doors, we're here to help you.

"If we can't help, we'll signpost you to other places in the area. But even coming in for a cuppa and a chat - we can see what we can do."

Atlas Women's Centre is located at 7 Bachelor's Walk in Lisburn, and more details about their services can be found here. More details about the Community Wellbeing Cost of Living 24 services can be found here.

Video by Belfast Live videographer Harry Bateman.

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