Alumni Business Person of the Year, Business in the Community and Growth Award entrant – Birgit Allport and Better Together Community Support Group

Alumni Business Person of the Year, Business in the Community and Growth Award entrant – Birgit Allport and Better Together Community Support Group
Posted on 23.04.24
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Alumni Business Person of the Year, Business in the Community and Growth Award entrant – Birgit Allport and Better Together Community Support Group

Staffordshire University alumna Birgit (Bridge) Allport has transformed Better Together Community Support Group from a small social group into a registered charity with nine members of staff in the space of just over five years – despite being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in 2019.

Bridge, now 54, moved to Stoke-on-Trent from her native Germany in 2010 after meeting her now husband Colin – and was surprised to find that he didn’t know his neighbours.

Inspired by her own experience of homelessness following a breakdown in family relationships as a young woman, she was driven to find ways to connect with the people around her.  In 2018 she set up a social group for older people from her Trent Vale home while she was a mature student at Staffordshire University studying international history.

Bridge says: “I was lucky because there were people who supported me and let me use their shower and so on while I was living in my car in my early 20s. A friend helped me to find a room in a shared house and I have never forgotten what a difference his help meant to me.

“That experience made me the person I am. I’m not always the most diplomatic person but my heart is in the right place. I have been vulnerable; I have needed help. I know how important it is to have a friend there when you need it most.”

The group’s popularity soared, with people attending from across Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, but in 2019 Bridge was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, which she has nicknamed Hugo, wrapped around her optic nerve. In the best-case scenario operating would leave her blind; or in the worst outcome, surgery could be fatal.

“When they told me, I responded in very strong language – too strong to repeat here – that I didn’t have time for this. My first thought was that if I’m not here anymore, who will help everyone? I put my affairs in order and then I just got on with things.”

When the Covid pandemic hit, Bridge and Colin started providing and delivering emergency food parcels for residents in need seven days a week, as well sourcing equipment such as fridge freezers and PPE and making hand sanitiser. In the beginning the couple funded everything themselves and even gave away their own clothes to people in need.

In 2021 Better Together became a registered charity to help more people and opened its headquarters in a row of shops in Trent Val, in October 2022, as a hub for activities and a warm space for the community.  In March 2024 the charity expanded its HQ into the adjacent disused shop to offer more activities for the community and bring a long-vacant unit back to life.

The charity now runs a wide range of activities, including a warm space which is open six days a week, drop-in advice sessions, emergency food and hygiene parcels, four weekly playgroups in different locations across Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle, a weekly community café, a book club, men’s group, youth group and a community garden.

In 2023 Better Together provided 1,890 emergency food and hygiene parcels to people in need, with 3,952 people attending activities in the same year and 208 people signposted to other services for additional assistance. Year-on-year this represents a 30 per cent increase in emergency parcels, a 27 per cent increase in attendance at activities and a 14 per cent increase in signposting to other services.

In December 2023 Better Together was given £338,000 over four years by the National Lottery Community Fund’s Reaching Communities England programme to employ five additional staff members, taking the total number of employees to nine.

Bridge was invited to the Queen’s last Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and afternoon tea with the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire in 2022, and to 10 Downing Street in 2023, in recognition of her charity work, while Better Together won the Breakthrough Award: Organisation at Voluntary Action Stoke-on-Trent’s Totally Stoked awards in January 2024, in recognition of its ‘significant growth’.

Bridge says: “Hugo [her brain tumour] is driving me on – helping others makes me forget my own health issues.

“I work stupid hours even when I’m dead on my feet. I look at the people who come to our warm space and our groups and they make it all worth it. What we do makes a big difference to their lives and that is my reward.

“What we do is life-saving – one of our community members told us that he had considered ending his life before he found us.

“Sometimes a cup of tea, a smile or a friendly word is all it takes to make someone’s life better. Doing good is wonderful – for the person doing it and for the person receiving it – and I just like to see people happy.”

Better Together now aims to continue to serve people across Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, by offering new activities in the extended headquarters, such as sessions aimed at people with special educational needs and disabilities. The charity is also planning to launch a new group and café in Chell Heath, and is exploring new partnerships across Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, while in the longer term there will be an increased focus on building the charity’s supporter base and expanding fundraising from individuals, trusts and foundations.

Bridge’s brain tumour has continued to grow slowly and she is set to have a scan in the summer to identify the next steps, which could include a course of radiotherapy.

She adds: “Our aim is not to become the biggest charity, but to work hard to make individual lives better and easier. If we can lift people’s spirits and create a sense of belonging where people feel comfortable to ask for help – and can receive that help – we will have achieved our aims.”

Birgit Allport has been nominated as Alumni Business Person of the Year and has entered Better Together into the Business in the Community and Growth categories of the Staffordshire University Business Awards.

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