CHURCHES and community halls across North Down are embracing the ‘warm spaces’ initiative and throwing open their doors to people who cannot afford to heat their homes.
    Organisations across the borough are inviting people to drop in and stay warm as the ongoing cost of living crisis continues to leave many people struggling to pay their energy bills.
    The warm spaces initiative allows people to stay warm in the available public spaces for a period throughout the week, saving money on their essential living bills. Tea and coffee, as well as board games and reading material are provided at many of the venues.
    The First Presbyterian Church in Bangor was one of the first to open its doors and it has now been joined by others, including West Church, on the Crawfordsburn Road, also in Bangor.
    Its warmth programme began at the end of October, and church minister, Rev. Charles McMullen, said the move was a response to the genuine concern in the community.
    “We thought it would be an opportunity to provide some kind of help for people in the community to be able to drop in and feel at home in the place,” Rev. McMullen said.
    “We have a pamphlet that is going to be distributed to every home in the area over the next couple of weeks.
    It’s just indicating to people that we are there.” Rev McMullen said he hopes his church will be a welcoming space for all in this time of crisis.
    “I think that there is very genuine concern out there, and church should always be a place of open doors,” he said.
    “We have been looking at the welcome centre in terms of being a warm welcome and a warm space,” he added.
    The cost of living crisis has also prompted people in Millisle to offer warm spaces in the village. Jo Scott, from the Millisle Community Association and Mrs Rummages’ charity shop, has been a force behind the implementation of warm spaces in the Millisle area following talks by the council.
    “We have a lot of people in the village coming into our charity shop and they tell us the impact this is having on them,” Ms Scott said. “We heard that the council were talking about the stay warm and connected initiative. That really made us want to get it up and running and want to contact the other organisations as well in the village that had halls.”
    “They will have the heating on for the time periods so people will be able to get a cup of tea or coffee, they can have a chat with whoever is in the place and they can read magazines or papers.” “In our own hall, we are going to put out some board games for people to play,” Ms Scott added.
    The halls which are open in Millisle include Abbey Villa, the Masonic Hall, St Patrick’s Church of Ireland and the Millisle Community Hub. With several offers of donations to the warm space cause, Ms Scott said the local village has come together to support each other in hardships.
    “Everybody is doing something to help in this crisis that we are in. The village has very much come together,” she said. “We don’t want anybody sitting at home in the cold. If you want to save your oil, come and sit in our halls and keep warm during the day.”
    With increased prices in terms of the cost of oil and gas, Ms Scott believes that there should be more support from local government for community effort. “I certainly think there needs to be support for community organisations to help with the additional spend they are going to have in opening up their halls,” the chair of the community association added.
    One of the frontrunners in the initiative – First Presbyterian Church, in Bangor – began welcoming people into the warmth of its building at the start of October. Rev. Mairisine Stanfield has welcomed news that more churches and organisations are buying into the project.
    “It’s brilliant, that was part of our real dream. That other people would be inspired to make a warm space around every corner if possible,” she said. The warm spaces drive within the community is being supported by Ards and North Down Council which is offering financial support for groups keen to help vulnerable people keep warm.
    The council administers funding from the Community Development Fund, providing grants of up to £2,500 for groups who want to open their doors as part of the initiative. The warm spaces available in Bangor include the First Presbyterian Church, available on weekdays from 10am to 4pm, and West Church on Wednesdays, 10am to 1pm. In Millisle, the St Patrick’s Church of Ireland is open Monday 9am to 11am, Tuesdays 10am to noon and Friday from 7:30pm to 8pm. On Monday, the Masonic Hall is open from noon to 3pm; Millisle Community Hub is available from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm; and Abbey Villa is available on Saturday, 12:30pm to 8pm.