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COMMENDEE 2015-16: Andy receives a Commendation for his work as a volunteer with Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire & Rutland CRC, in helping to turn around ‘Minnie’s Friends’, a drop-in centre “for vulnerable people of all ages”.

Andy CeresetoAndy Cereseto is a volunteer for The DLNR CRC (The Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire & Rutland Community Rehabilitation Company). He is Commended for his role in helping turn around Minnie’s Friends, a Loughborough drop-in centre “for vulnerable people, both young and old, male or female;  we particularly help the homeless, the lonely, those with debt problems and others with drug or alcohol misuse.”

Andy’s Support Manager and Initial Nominator Jan Pearce provides an overview, describing how “retired businessman Andy Cereseto became a probation volunteer because he wanted to give something back to his home community in Leicestershire.” Noting that “becoming a volunteer usually entails making a commitment to undertake the training and be willing to give a few hours or a day a week to work as a volunteer,” Jan explains that “an exceptional situation developed that required Andy’s expertise and analytical skills if a partnership charity was going to be saved. During an intensive six month period Andy spent three to four days a week, every week, at the charity in Loughborough.”

Jan goes on, “He never complained, he never said that we were expecting too much. Andy felt that this was his opportunity to make a real difference to a group of people, who are often on the edge of society, with no real prospects of improving their lives.” Minnie’s Friends faced closure, “for while there was still great determination and passion amongst the volunteers to contribute their time and, for some, to share their personal stories of recovery, they needed practical advice and guidance on how to organise a charity so that resources and the talents of individuals were harnessed in the most productive manner.”

Which is where Andy stepped in. As Jan says, “For a charity to succeed there has to be a committed and dedicated group of supporters, but without the proper approach and framework, sadly, that charity is not going to develop and be sustainable… I knew that Andy was the man with the relevant expertise, but this was a huge assignment and I would have understood if he had said that the task demanded too much of his time and energy.”

Andy visited the charity’s home base and was impressed “by their vision and goodwill – and what had been achieved already for quite vulnerable people. There were some individual service users at the charity who had experienced periods of homelessness, and were often difficult to reach by other support services.” Jan adds that “Andy didn’t pull any punches in his assessment. He explained that there had to be a ‘root and branch change’ otherwise their future looked very bleak. Since then his work has literally transformed the charity and the way it functions, and he has secured funding to ensure its work will continue. Andy has been tireless, and his commitment and dedication have never wavered.”

Jan concludes, “His work has saved Minnie’s Friends. He maintained that strategic overview and became the ‘paperwork king’ as well as getting to know the volunteers and service users. Without the proper structure, the charity was imploding; now, Minnie’s Friends is continuing as a lifesaver for many people living – with quite complex issues – in the Loughborough area.”

Butler Trust Local Champion Fiona Buchanan, The DLNR CRC’s Communication Manager, takes up the story: “Andy Cereseto is one of those exceptional people who quietly ‘get on’ with the job. No big fuss, no loud noise. As a retired businessman and advisor, his experience enabled him to approach Minnie’s Friends and acknowledge all that had been achieved, but was able to advise them on what their next actions should be.”

Fiona describes how the charity’s volunteers and service users “learned to trust and respect him because he was involved on a day to day basis. There seemed to be no limits to the amount of time and care that Andy was willing to give to this worthy cause because he genuinely felt that the charity was helping people to improve their lives.”

Before this work, Andy had also volunteered as a mentor with Futures Unlocked, a charity that helps ex-offenders to lead crime free lives, the Youth Offending Service, and as a general probation volunteer.

Brian Wakley, Director with Goodworks, which promotes community engagement and business development, had this to say: “Andy has shown huge grit and determination and commitment to strengthen the work of Minnie’s Friends. He has faced many challenges and no doubt learnt a lot along the way. He maintains his heartfelt desire to make a difference and has encouraged and recruited others to get involved and help improve services and share their skills as he has. There are still many challenges to face, but Andy will no doubt continue to exert his gentle leadership and focus on moving things forward as much as possible each day.”

Leon Webster, an ex-volunteer with Minnie’s Friends now employed as a Health Trainer with the DLNR CRC, said “Andy’s involvement with Minnie’s Friends has not been an easy ride. He has helped organise and stabilise the charity, but initially there was some resistance to his proposals. The charity had been set up and run by some very dedicated people, but Minnie’s Friends had grown hugely and was struggling to meet growing demands. Andy also introduced proper training for the volunteers, so they understood how they could help people without becoming too involved on a personal level. It is not an exaggeration to say that for some individuals, Minnie’s Friends has saved their lives.”

Jane Gray, Director at Inclusion Healthcare, which works to improve the health and wellbeing of the homeless and other marginalised groups of people, said that “Andy is not only committed to supporting people who face considerable challenges in their lives, but has also shown courage and determination in his work with ‘Minnie’s Friends’ to help them manage change and move forwards in providing this much needed and valuable service.”

Jo Mead, the DLNR CRC’s Chief Executive Officer, notes that “as an unpaid probation volunteer with the DLNR CRC, he was asked to undertake an enormous task. Andy had to gain the trust of the volunteers, the service users and, most importantly, the family [who set up the charity ‘in memory of Donna Phillips, who sadly lost her life in 2005 at the young age of 32 years old, due to alcohol abuse.’] This was no easy task.”

As Jo says, “Without Andy’s involvement and vision, Minnie’s Friends would have eventually faced closure. Not only would Carol Phillips [Donna’s mother] have been devastated at this turn of events, but vulnerable people living in that area would have lost a vital resource. Some of these individuals face periods of homelessness and don’t know when they are going to eat again. It is no exaggeration to say that Minnie’s Friends is a life-saver for some men and women who are feeling alone and desperate.”

Jo concludes, “Now, thanks to Andy, the volunteers receive appropriate training and support and feel more confident in their vital work with people seeking their help. Secondly, the charity has achieved greater clarity in its future vision to provide practical assistance and guidance to service users trying to rebuild their lives.”

As Andy says, Minnie’s Friends “aims to offer compassion and support, a place which can enable the vulnerable to feel empowered to move on to a better and healthier life.” He says that he was “happy to make that big commitment every week because I knew that I had the expertise to go through the paperwork and explain that the new structure and approach would support them in their work and would secure the funding to carry on. I had wanted to give something back and this task was my chance to make a difference to people’s lives, many on the edge of normal community life.”

As Andy notes, “being professional does not take away from the passion and commitment of volunteers; a proper approach supports that excellent work”, describing how he based himself at the charity and did “what I thought needed to be done – but I also listened – a lot. People have to feel part of the process and I encouraged volunteers and people who were using the charity to give me their thoughts and ideas.”

As a result, the charity “has moved from its original, and increasingly unsuitable and unsafe premises, to a more appropriate site that is still in the town of Loughborough. We have developed a good working relationship with the management of the local youth shelter and their volunteer co-ordinator has been seconded to oversee the day to day running until we are able to find and resource a suitable person to fill the post.”

These changes, he explains, “mean that our volunteers are fully advised, supported and resourced in their work with people visiting Minnie’s Friends. It is very powerful for a volunteer worker to say that they know what someone is going through because they have had similar experiences. By sharing personal stories of recovery, volunteers can act as motivators, but there needs to be guidance about working in a caring and professional manner – with boundaries.”

He says that Minnie’s Friends works with people “with often complex issues, not just drug and alcohol issues but sometimes with debt problems and homelessness. We can provide advice and support to enable individuals to access specialist drug and alcohol services and we have in-house help. The charity offers hot food during the morning and at lunch times, food parcels and free second hand clothes and bedding.”

Noting that these are “practical measures” that can “be a lifeline for someone, who feels they have no-one to turn to and nothing to lose”, Andy describes “former offenders, who admit that being in prison was better than being homeless and alone. Minnie’s Friends is offering an alternative to feeling desperate and friendless.”

Minnie’s patron is the local MP, and Secretary of State for Education, the Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan. As the charity has continued to grow, says Andy, “the wider message is that we can all play a part to enable the disadvantaged, and the people fighting substance abuse, to rebuild their lives. When communities get involved, and positive action results, both individuals and society benefits.”

Looking ahead, Andy says the charity is now focusing “on the many different ways we can help individuals to move on in their lives so that they can be self-sustaining, fulfilled and, in turn, contribute to their community. Partnership is key to our further development as no single agency has the resources and expertise to meet all the complex needs presented by the people who are turning to Minnie’s Friends. We need to establish a comprehensive referral system that means we can act quickly and know that the agency we are recommending is the right one and has the capacity to help that particular individual. The ‘hard to reach’ and vulnerable need essential life skills and we are looking at setting up a programme that helps with learning how to budget so they don’t run up rent arrears; learn how to go shopping and cook for themselves.”

Minnie’s Friends currently runs three days a week, with volunteers seeing “up to 85 people during opening times.” Minnie’s Friends’ future plans also include running a service at weekends. “But”, says Andy, “we want to offer more. We would like to provide a range of social activities such as a number of sporting activities. Our clients – many who feel isolated and alone – will have the opportunity to work together as a team and improve how they communicate with other people.”

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