Real life: The woman who’s bring­ing com­mu­ni­ties to­gether

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Contents -

Caro­line Billing­ton is on a mis­sion to get us all chat­ting to each other – es­pe­cially at the most fes­tive time of year. Here, she speaks to Sue Thomas about how she’s chang­ing lives

As Caro­line Billing­ton drove a minibus full of el­derly peo­ple to a fes­tive lunch, she couldn’t help but pick up on the awk­ward si­lence.

How­ever, it wasn’t that these peo­ple were strangers.

They were neigh­bours and lived just yards from each other in the same block of flats.

Yet, de­spite their close liv­ing quar­ters, none of them knew each other or had even had a con­ver­sa­tion.

It was 2007 and Caro­line had vol­un­teered to drive a minibus of el­derly peo­ple to a lo­cally or­gan­ised Christ­mas Day lunch in New­bury.

‘On the way there, nobody spoke, we just trav­elled in si­lence,’ Caro­line says.

‘It was so strange, as these peo­ple were neigh­bours. But on the way back, I no­ticed a stark change. They were chat­ting non-stop and ar­rang­ing to meet for cof­fee.

‘They spoke about what a lovely time they’d had and how happy they were that they’d met each other.’

Caro­line was so sur­prised at how a sin­gle lunch had brought ev­ery­one out of their shells.

It had given the group the chance to con­nect, talk and build bud­ding friend­ships.

And it was that mo­ment that gave Caro­line an idea that changed her life.

‘Rather than leave the good deed done, I started set­ting up a charity called Com­mu­nity Christ­mas,’ Caro­line says.

‘I just had the urge to con­nect peo­ple. So I built a charity that of­fers sup­port to any­one want­ing to start a new Christ­mas Day event, with ad­vice on how to gather vol­un­teers for cook­ing, serv­ing food and trans­port­ing peo­ple there and home again.’

And so the web­site, com­mu­ni­ty­christ­, was born, list­ing places peo­ple can go on Christ­mas Day.

Over the next few years, the organisation con­tin­ued to grow, bring­ing el­derly peo­ple to­gether at 74 events across the coun­try in 2013 and 152 in 2014. By 2015, it had risen to more than 300 events.

It was, and still re­mains, Caro­line’s mis­sion to unite el­derly peo­ple at Christ­mas so that nobody has to spend the fes­tiv­i­ties alone.

But the 56-year-old didn’t want to stop there.

She wanted to con­nect peo­ple of all ages.

‘I thought that those who are new to an area, women who’ve just had a baby or peo­ple who don’t get out much might wel­come the chance to meet some­one and chat over a cuppa,’ Caro­line ex­plains.

So in July 2016, she de­cided to launch Cof­fee Com­pan­ions (cof­feecom­pan­, which en­cour­ages cafes to host reg­u­lar cof­fee morn­ings, where peo­ple can meet and chat.

‘It was a hit and was re­ally lovely to see peo­ple con­nect­ing over a cof­fee,’ Caro­line re­calls. ‘Par­tic­i­pants can even down­load a “Chat mat” from the web­site, which can be left on the ta­ble as an in­di­ca­tor that they’re happy to nat­ter. It just helps to elim­i­nate any awk­ward­ness.

‘At one ses­sion, one reg­u­lar dug out a poem to share called

‘On the way back from the lunch,

they were chat­ting non-stop’

Warn­ing: When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Pur­ple.

‘The fol­low­ing week, some­one else from the group came along dressed head to toe in pur­ple! It was a great ice­breaker.’

So where did this pas­sion for con­nect­ing peo­ple come from? Has Caro­line, per­haps, felt iso­lated in her own life?

Quite the op­po­site, in fact.

Caro­line has an im­pres­sive and var­ied work his­tory that has been very ful­fill­ing.

She’s been a speech ther­a­pist, an ac­coun­tant and a fi­nance di­rec­tor over the course of her work­ing life.

‘I live with my part­ner of 11 years and we don’t have chil­dren – we never wanted them,’ Caro­line ex­plains.

‘I swim first thing ev­ery morn­ing when I can, and try to learn one new thing ev­ery year.

‘This year, be­cause my hand­writ­ing is ap­palling, I went on a cal­lig­ra­phy course, but I lost pa­tience with it. How­ever, I took up the trom­bone 15 years ago and still en­joy play­ing.’

Busy Caro­line has also tried skate­board­ing, paint­ing and vol­un­teer­ing at a lo­cal theatre.

And she con­tin­ues to drive the lo­cal com­mu­nity minibus a few evenings a month.

‘I’m not ready to stop yet,’ Caro­line says. ‘I love bring­ing peo­ple to­gether and help­ing them make new friends.’

Is try­ing to con­nect the world too big of a job for just one woman, though?

‘Maybe,’ Caro­line ad­mits.

‘But even if I can only make a dif­fer­ence to a few peo­ple’s lives, it’s worth all the ef­fort.’

Caro­line, third from right, set up Cof­fee Com­pan­ions to help pre­vent peo­ple from feel­ing lonely

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