Vision and early story (2007 - 2018)
Mighty Oaks started at Morpeth in 2007 when a group of Christians wanted to show God’s love in a practical way with no hidden catches.
Taking our Christianity out onto the streets, our main duty is to give out free Barista style coffee from espresso machines to anyone and everyone (customers and staff going home from pubs and restaurants, bouncers, late night dog walkers etc).
The project is funded by some churches, generous donors and appreciative church individuals that give once in a while.
Morpeth used a coffee trailer in the town square and the idea was franchised with a converted van to Alnwick. One of the original founders moved to Aurora, Colorado and they give out hot meals to the homeless.
I’m part of the Gateshead core team where the beginnings came from a church house group that wanted to do practical things in the community, the initial idea was donating Christmas toiletry bags to the staff at a local hospital.
Another member was once on the Morpeth Mighty Oaks team before he moved to Gateshead for work, he inspired some of us to take a visit for an insightful night to observe the Morpeth team in action during January 2014.
A Gateshead core team of 7 was set up with various skills (admin, appropriate contacts, ex barista, committed volunteers) but because of repeated discussions about finance, pros and cons of trailers and vans we didn’t get started until Spring 2016. We borrowed Morpeth’s trailer when it was available and working on and off for the next two years.
Photos are from the Facebook page showing the beginnings of the work in the early years at Morpeth before my time and also a rare photo of the Alnwick van.
Transition from Morpeth trailer to Gateshead Van (2016 - 2018)
For this period of time, there were some wonderful advances in where the project was going but strangely enough these were the very things that currently seem to hinder us which I’ll highlight in the next post. Some good lessons for anyone reading this thinking about doing something similar.
Firstly we located a suitable site for the trailer with plenty of pedestrian traffic on a pavement next to a taxi rank, within the vicinity of numerous bars and restaurants. We got permission from the local council and police (an interested ream turned up on week 2 to see what it was all about and we seemed to have their approval).
Borrowing the Morpeth trailer from 2016 - 2018 was amazing to which we are extremely grateful to them. However it proved interesting as we tried to get to grips with the idiosyncrasies of ageing bespoke machinery. The availability of tow bars on the team’s private vehicles were limited which led us to consider a van.
Thanks to the ex Morpeth member, we gained admin access to the Mighty Oaks Facebook page which personally I felt belonged to Morpeth. I had a feeling that we hijacked it with our advertising so I set up a Mighty_Oaks_Gateshead Instagram account with more frequent news.
Fundraising for the next level from the home church was immense and almost unbelievable. Some of the members had no idea what Mighty Oaks was all about even though it had been explained and just gave donations because it was such a radical idea.
A local coffee van conversion company assisted us in the process as they recommended and eventually sourced something suitable and affordable at a garage near Leeds / Bradford airport. This was a 65 plate Chinese DFSK pick up truck. My wife and I went to see it, test drove and bought it (April 2018).
The expense of the conversion was double that of the vehicle so the church kindly donated the deficit as they felt the members had exhausted their finances enough for this project.
During the Summer, the conversion company transformed the pick up truck into a van, Coffee Machine, LPG, water tank, additional battery, electrics and 4 large drawers. My wife who has extensive admin experience set up Mighty Oaks Gateshead as a charity with a business bank account. It was challenging for her as the first application was rejected due to wording by the charity commission.
Mighty Oaks Gateshead started properly with the van outside the church hosting a Mighty Oaks fundraising concert given by Rob Halligan in September 2018.
For such a time as this (09/18-03/20)
At the beginning of our new chapter with the van, it seemed like it was going to be all about making barista style coffee, tea, hot chocolate and engaging people in conversation.
Despite being situated in one of the most affluent areas of Gateshead, a lot of people came to sample the pubs from some of the more deprived areas of the town. The mix of people provided different challenges as some didn’t want hot drinks as they thought we should stock burgers / alcohol or on the other hand it was above them to expect a drink for free. Many thought we should be serving to the homeless and those sleeping rough, a fair point but difficult considering that the coffee machine operation is designed more for a static location with council approval.
We only use 8oz double walled compostable cups with lids. For those customers less in control of their faculties, hot drinks are better controlled with the smaller cup, insulated walls and a lid. If they choose to take the lid off then that’s up to them. On a side note we do have public liability insurance which covers a huge range of issues.
The typical opening lines of a conversation …. “would you like a free hot drink?” with the answer of “no thanks”, “why’s it free” …. small interaction then an “ok then” or the regulars passing by saying “no thanks but you’re doing a great job?”
Donations are highly discouraged but we accept them if it’s looking like developing into an argument.
“Why’s it free?” provokes a series of questions customer led on why we do this with variations of the long answer being - “We’re a Community venture from local churches showing Gods love in a practical way.”
We found that those who didn’t want a drink would accept a Quality Street, Roses or Heroes Chocolate, so this became paramount for focus on the counter.
Any subsequent conversations were always led by the customer and can be about their night out, the weather, sport, topical or something a bit deeper if they wish.
It quickly became apparent that we were developing the work of Mighty Oaks into more of a Street Angels role. The spare fourth drawer in the van started with bottles of water and as we saw the needs of the public over a period of time, the drawer was gradually filled with flip flops, hats, gloves, socks, umbrellas, flyers about what we do and dog biscuits !
One problem we had was finding an answer to the periodic decaffeinated requests. The coffee company gave us some pod samples that were too thin and unusable so we went onto a bag of supermarket ground coffee beans. We now have acquired a bag of proper beans from our coffee supplier which I am going to pre grind a small amount before service and keep in an airtight container. Drinks added to the list by request over time have been Bovril, hot squirty squash from the Aldi checkout aisles and there was a request recently for soup which I am going to look into next.
We have a team of five to six per night with a mix of men and women. Two on barista duties ( for busy periods), one to two on orders, lids, milk and sugar and finally 2 walk and talkers. The roles are interchangeable if anyone gets tied up in a conversation or a situation. Not all the team wish to be or are barista trained and most prefer their usual roles, so I adjust the rota accordingly. We had a team of about 20 at our peak with 5 drivers and served anything up to 50 drinks. We once stopped a fight adjacent to the van with a glass of milk. The night starts at 10pm with the Bar staff from two pubs coming for a tray of drinks for their colleagues and bouncers. The Indian restaurant staff come half way through service and most drinks served to the revellers after 11:30 when the conversation is a bit more open !! We can operate with a team of four, but it means we couldn’t be as effective to visit the man in the sitting in the shop doorway on the other side of the road or the worker in the Pizza takeaway.
What’s awkward is when it looks quiet and we close up. The process for switching off the coffee machine and closing down the van can be quite protracted and usually someone appears to request a drink or have a deep and meaningful conversation possibly influenced by alcohol, so we have learned that instead of saying “sorry we’re closed”, we have a tin of instant barista style Azera coffee in the drinks drawer for such occasions. …. Don’t tell the other Mighty Oaks teams that we do that though, haha !!
Challenged (March 20 - present - Nov 2022)
Covid Lockdown had more impact on us that I could have imagined. The van stood idle for months and the battery went flat. When we were allowed to drive again, it was more or less to keep the engine and battery going on some longer routes to the perimeter of Gateshead borough and North West County Durham. Despite the van being a 65 plate, the Chinese vehicle is affordable to buyers by being constructed of budget materials and untreated metal (hindsight comments from the professionals is a wonderful thing !! ). Since Lockdown the van has had a major paint re spray, a rear exhaust pipe replacement, a total electrics failure (AA call out) with moisture in a junction box and a chassis paint treatment. The garage is currently waiting for a wheel bearing part coming from China.
The coffee supplier we used for everything downsized their operation to just their own coffee. With thanks to Covid, disposable cups were impossible to purchase and we now purchase supplies from four different companies.
Lastly Covid was a natural break for our volunteers. We have gained two, one of which has been trained up as a barista but overall we lost a third of the team mainly due to changes in family circumstances with a few opting out on elderly age. Unfortunately a lot of these were drivers so we changed the insurance to a cheaper named driver’s policy, which consists of my wife and I. You’ve guessed it, we’ve had to half the current Mighty Oaks operation to once a fortnight. Some have promised to return once circumstances have ironed themselves out.
Now the good news … we have always been on the lookout for new opportunities of serving, promotion and potential recruitment.
The first event during restriction easing was for the 60th birthday party of a volunteer. We took the van and parked it on the driveway next to her garden. It was an opportunity to study social distancing for events, as opposed to what can occur late on a Friday night, also refresh our memories on how to make coffee !!
We recommenced the late night operation in July 2021 after a break of 16 months. It was a surreal experience as the streets were much quieter due to continuing covid concerns. Additionally social and drinking habits changed thanks to the increase in home delivery shopping from supermarkets.
We partnered with Handcrafted projects, a charity that helps people get back on the road of life after having difficult things to face, life choices that didn’t go well or mental health issues. We did a barista course as additional training to satisfy the local council to help them get substantial funding.
We did two church events, one for summer and one at Christmas for promotion (exposure and volunteers) and to help get people through the gate and involved in the activities of the day.
Currently we continue to operate fortnightly and have additionally two Christmas events coming up.
The World Cup has provided us with some surprising results, not with the scores on the field but with some amazing footfall on the streets similar to what it was like in 2019.
There have been questions over the past year about where we are both in location and the choice of night, also how do we be strategic into getting more volunteers.
With all that being said and the future looking a bit uncertain, The World Cup has given us hope and encouragement to the volunteers that the effectiveness of our operation is not in doubt.
In the meantime it’s a case of taking one month at a time and being thankful for the way we have been led to this point in time.
ROC Angels News
This blog is a place for stories and news updates from within the ROC Angels family.