There’s nothing like a woman dressed as Mrs Claus handing out presents to babies in Santa costumes to get you in the festive spirit.
This was the scene at Port Talbot Library when I visited to help with filming by the BBC of their Warm Welcome Space. The Library was a perfect example of a Warm Space in action, with a particularly striking balance of activities that engaged a wide section of the community without losing a clear focus on helping the most vulnerable.
Over in one corner was the Children’s Zone, complete with festive backdrop for the perfect Mrs Claus present distribution photo shoot. 20 or so families with little ones arrived for their weekly sing and sign group. As one lady told me, the library has been supporting families for a long time; “they kept me sane during Lockdown” she told me, by bringing individual packages of books and craft activities to people’s houses. It’s a helpful reminder that what we now call Warm Spaces have usually been at this for a long time. This Library, like many Warm Welcome Spaces, has upped its game in various ways in response to the Cost of Living Crisis, but it hasn’t altered its fundamental mission in doing so.
In another corner of the Library a coffee morning with a twist is in full flow. It was set up about 18 months ago as a response to the war in Ukraine, and the arrival in Port Talbot of a number of refugee families fleeing the conflict. What started as a vigil outside the Town Hall was then offered the chance to congregate in the Library, who have been putting on hot drinks and food every week ever since.
The war in Ukraine may have retreated from the front pages, but it hasn’t stopped having a devastating effect on people’s lives. Over mince pies and cups of tea several Ukrainian ladies commiserated each other over the fact that they hadn’t been able to contact any family back home by phone or internet for the last week. What was particularly heartening was that this haven for those seeking sanctuary had expanded beyond Ukrainians to include asylum seekers from a nearby hotel. The current Government may have strong views about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ refugees, but in this Warm Welcome Space anybody in search of warmth and safety was being actively welcomed.
Finally, in another corner a range of craft activities were taking place. Mandy, a volunteer who had started one of the groups, explained that this was very much a Cost of Living-influenced activity. “It’s so rare that you can have somewhere to go, try out new crafts, and its actually free of charge” she told me. The library have made sure that most of the craft activities involve free or cheaply available materials so that people can recreate what they’ve learned at home.
Mandy is very clear what this library means to people. “I’ve lived all over and in other places they are knocking libraries down and building on them, or they’re only open 3 hours a day and run by volunteers. The team here are amazing, they have these ideas and then they make them happen.”
Clare is the leader of this remarkable team. She’s been working in libraries for over 20 years, and proudly gives me the full tour of the different zones and activities her colleagues have helped curate. She quietly admits that they’ve pulled out all the stops to have all of these activities happening on the same day for the BBC, but nonetheless it’s a truly remarkable array of people all in the library together – every generation, background and interest represented.
By the end of the morning the BBC presenter has had to take his woolly jumper off and I’m tempted to do the same. Clare and her team take their duty to keep people cosy extremely seriously, but even so the temperature is nothing compared to the warmth of the welcome they are extending to everyone who walks through their door this Christmas.