Southborough residents enjoy moments of pure Bliss

    Cafe Bliss Southborough

    Café Bliss in Southborough is a prime example of a small but vital organisation which would benefit from Vodafone’s funding.

    It is currently applying for charitable status in order to help maintain the multitude of services it provides to the local community, entirely on a non-profit basis.

    The venue, at 142 London Road, is not just a place to eat but, more importantly, a drop-in centre providing free information and assistance for local people who need help.

    The brainchild of Elaine Lawrence, who set up the Better Living in Southborough Society (BLISS), the café opened in 2009 ‘to promote a sense of community locally and give the residents a voice on local issues’.

    Mrs Lawrence set up a residents’ association after problems arose in the neighbourhood.

    “People began pouring round to my house for cups of tea,” she said. “It was getting more and more busy.”

    She has three children with her husband Ian, who now works in the café with her. “I wanted to get it out of my house and find some more room,” she admits.

    So they secured a lease on the old Bang & Olufsen shop and Café Bliss was launched with help from all sides. Pizza Piazza sent equipment and staff to help out, Mears of Tonbridge donated a kitchen and Connaught gave them a bathroom.

    But it’s certainly not just a matter of providing fresh, healthy food. There are 20 volunteers working on the premises, which includes offices and a meeting room.

    Café Bliss has been widely praised for a work experience programme it runs with the Job Centre ‘to get people’s confidence back and get them back in work’, says Mrs Lawrence.

    This scheme, which is also available to people with disabilities, is run in partnership with local schools and the Prince’s Trust.

    The initiative led to them receiving a Job Centre Employer Partnership Best in Kent Award in 2012, beating the likes of Asda, Morrisons and Shepherd Neame.

    That year they also won Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s Love Where We Live Ethical Business Award.

    So how did word get around? “My loud mouth,” laughs Mrs Lawrence. “I’ve lived here for 25 years and I’m the sort of person who works on the ground with people.

    “For example, a little old lady came in with a Lottery ticket she wanted me to check for her. She said, ‘I’ve been told that you’re the person to trust around here’.”

    There are regular surgeries at the café with the Citizens Advice Bureau and Insight, a free NHS talking therapy service, and there’s a youth club one evening a week.

    Southborough councillor Joe Simmons comes in every Friday to talk to residents, while local charity Pepenbury organise social events for those with learning disabilities.

    “It’s all about giving people an opportunity without putting them in a category,” says Mrs Lawrence. We don’t see anyone’s disabilities. What is ‘normal’, after all?”

    Recent workshops included compiling recipes based around Food Bank parcels and a five-day ‘energy pop-up shop’ offering advice on how to cut electricity bills.

    The Bliss Café is open Monday to Friday, 9am-3pm. Visit: cafebliss.co.uk