The power of one Big Lunch

A woman and an elderly woman in a bright pink cardigan pose for a photo near a plant.

Paula Tabakin is an activity coordinator at Fairholme: a South Belfast sheltered housing scheme. She entered the tenants into a recent competition run by the Eden Project and The Big Lottery Fund, and wouldn’t you know it, she won. With her winnings she brought tenants and neighbours together for a Big Lunch. This is a story about one lunch feeding community spirit for days, and how one lunch can lead to another and another....

'I love the way everyone brings something to the table. At most events, people turn up and take, whereas the giving is the best bit.'

Fairholme is an enhanced care sheltered housing scheme run by Helm Housing and Belfast Health Trust. Paula, who works part time, is always looking for fun low-cost ways to engage the older people, many of whom have complex needs that limit their involvement in local community life.

'When you have complex needs and live in sheltered housing it can get a bit socially isolating because even when you go out and about, people (for different reasons) can distance themselves from you,' says Paula.

'I have been to a few local Big Lunches and love the way everyone brings something to the table, creating shared ownership. At most events, people turn up and take, whereas the giving is the best bit. Our tenants are not all able to get about for various reasons so I told them about The Big Lunch and we decided to do it ourselves — inviting the wider neighbourhood to join in.'

Paula was delighted to win the competition and put her winnings towards additional activities for the day. They are still making use of them now.

The Big Lunch Northern Ireland Country Manager Grainne McCloskey can see that The Big Lunch has really taken off across Belfast.

'Here at Fairholme, with Paula’s support, vulnerable adults have been able to invite the neighbourhood in and enjoy a fun day together. But more importantly, they have been able to re-engage in community life with some of the tenants attending other local Big Lunches at Wildflower Alley and Donegal Pass.'

There are lots of community-minded people in Belfast doing creative and engaging things and Paula has tapped into this network and invited them to share their energy with the residents of Fairholme. So while they might not be able to get out in the community as often as they used to, the community is coming to them.

Two older woman sit next to each other at The Big Lunch.

'Just sitting here today enjoying our tea and cake, it’s evident just how much pleasure the residents get from a new face visiting and how spending just a few hours of our time with older or less able members of our community isn’t something we should put off doing because of busy workloads,' says Grainne. 'I really hope to see more sheltered housing schemes tapping into The Big Lunch idea'.

'I thoroughly enjoyed the craic with the residents and was knocked off my seat when I discovered the canny lady I was chatting with, Mrs Hoey, was 104. She told me she’s not so interested in the past but prefers to focus on today and what’s on the menu to do tomorrow. That’s an attitude we could all learn from.'

If you’d like to bring your neighbours together, find out more about Organising a Big Lunch. We have plenty of tips and ideas, or for regular inspiration delivered straight to your news feed, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram