Offering hot food and a kind smile to the people society seems to have forgotten, Blackpool’s no-money-needed charity shop is celebrating 25 years of operation.
Christian outreach group Care and Share has sat firmly at the heart of Blackpool’s community for a quarter of a century.
Now, its selfless founder looks back on the difficult years that inspired her – and wonders what the future holds for the organisation.
Meet Linda McEvilly, the go-getter gran who has dedicated her life to helping Blackpool’s poor and homeless.
Linda, 71, doesn’t let problems with her immune system and fibromyalgia – a condition causing severe muscle pain – stop her collecting and donating food, clothes and hygiene products to battered women, abused youngsters, recovering addicts and recycling agencies every day as part of her extensive one-woman charity service.
As she celebrates her 25th successful year as a professional good Samaritan, Linda has not forgotten her own struggles which sparked the beginning of a small outreach group which now extends a helping hand across the whole of Mereside.
If I can keep going another eight or 10 years then I’ll be very happy
Raised in Blackpool, Linda was forced to leave her whole life behind when she fled an abusive relationship – and the small hotel she called home – in the 1970s. Destitute, homeless, and with two small children, Jaine, eight, and Anthony, two, clinging to her apron strings, she scoured the town every day looking for work.
“I was on the streets with two children and nowhere to go. I didn’t know what to do,” Linda said. “I lost everything and there was no one to help me. I swore to God that if he just got me back on my feet I would do anything I could to help other people in that situation.”
And she did. In 1991, with the memory of shacking up in a leaky hostel and struggling to sleep on a bedframe lacking a mattress fresh in her mind, Linda started giving out food and clothes to needy locals from her new home in Bowness Avenue, which is still used as a drop-off point for donations today. Inspired by Christian evangelist Billy Graham, she made a promise to bring love to her neighbours’ lives.
She said: “I started just on my own estate giving out little parcels and food hampers for people. When I went shopping I would always buy extra food and eventually word got around. Jaine and her friends were really supportive and would donate lovely things.”
But tragedy struck again when, four years later, Jaine was killed in a car crash while on holiday in America – leaving behind a nine-year-old son, Daniel. Now 28, he knows Linda as ‘Mum’.
Linda said: “When Jaine was killed I thought about packing it all in but I couldn’t because by then people had started sending other people to me.
“We used to give out about 80 to 100 hampers at Christmas each year... this year we gave out 618. It’s just grown and grown. The people that I helped as children are now 30 or 40 years old and some of them have moved out of Blackpool, but they still bring things into the charity and leave them outside my house.
“Hostels don’t supply knives and forks or plates or toiletries so I’ve been donating them for the past 10 years.
“I get hundreds of donations every week. It all comes from people I have helped in the past who have now got back on their feet and want to donate to a charity where they know they will be helping someone in need.
“No money is exchanged. The way I see it, I get the donations for free so I should give them away for free.”
Linda’s philanthropy focuses on those who, she says, ‘slip through the net’. The eight-months-pregnant girl whose boyfriend ran off with another woman, ditching their shared flat and flogging her possessions on eBay.
The unemployed man who was sanctioned by benefits bosses after missing a Job Centre meeting when his bus broke down and was left penniless for two weeks.
The ex-army man severely injured in Argentina, who said in a heartfelt letter of thanks: “I was sleeping rough for a few months then was so ill that I ended up in hospital. After a week the hospital worker got me in a hostel and then they managed to get me a flat – but I couldn’t get furniture or grants as I’d no ties to Blackpool and hadn’t been on benefits long enough. I tried every charity and every support place and got nowhere so I contacted Linda on New Year’s Eve.
“She came out within the hour with a kettle, toaster, blow-up mattress, bedding, small TV, mugs, plates, towels, food – all sorts.”
The satisfaction of knowing she has helped someone, Linda says, is all the thanks she needs.
“I would give the coat off my back if I had to,” she said. “And I have!
“I’m like a good neighbour, a mum or a good friend. If somebody has no food and calls me at night I can get it to them.
“Of course I could set up a charity shop and give things to people who can afford to pay £10 for a coat and £15 for a baby’s high chair – but what about the people who can’t afford that? What about the people who have nothing?
“If people are living in squalor and get no help then they’re going to stay like that. If people can’t afford new clothes then they’re going to look scruffy, and it’s even harder for them to find a house, because people think ‘we don’t want them here’.”
Her special free ‘swap shops’, held at St Monica’s Catholic Church just off Preston New Road, give those people the chance to fill their pockets with the food and warm clothes they need to get by – as well as bringing in unwanted items, which Linda spruces up with the help of a tight-knit team and passes on to other people in need.
“My only worry is what will happen when I die,” Linda said. “I can’t lift so much now. My hands are swollen and horrible because of my illnesses and my age. I’ve had people say they would carry on Care and Share – but that they would have to open a charity shop. I’m aware that if people work they will want a wage.
“If I can keep going another eight or 10 years then I’ll be very happy.”