Thousands helped by body set up with a £500 grant

Early evening at Murray's chemist, and Ebubekir Aka is on duty to help the customers. Many are there to pick up their prescriptions, some need a bit of advice about how best to deal with their ailments.

SANDWELL COPYRIGHT SHROPSHIRE STAR STEVE LEATH 12/10/2022..Mark Andrews job: Pic for Dudley and Sandwell too. Pic at the Dudley Canal and Mine Trust where group:  JST (Just Straight Talk), were marking 10 years of helping people with a party .  Sandwell mayor: Richard Jones pictured with musician: Amy Smith and from JST L-R: Shona Gilsenan (Community Connector), Sue Hurley (Director). Kate Beale BEM (Managing Director)..
SANDWELL COPYRIGHT SHROPSHIRE STAR STEVE LEATH 12/10/2022..Mark Andrews job: Pic for Dudley and Sandwell too. Pic at the Dudley Canal and Mine Trust where group: JST (Just Straight Talk), were marking 10 years of helping people with a party . Sandwell mayor: Richard Jones pictured with musician: Amy Smith and from JST L-R: Shona Gilsenan (Community Connector), Sue Hurley (Director). Kate Beale BEM (Managing Director)..

What few of the patients at the shop in Tipton will know was that little more than a year ago, the experienced pharmacist had pretty much given up hope of using his talents in the UK after arriving as a refugee from Nigeria.

Ebubekir, who originally trained as a pharmacist in his native Turkey, had been working in Africa before political turmoil forced him to flee. But when he arrived in the UK, he discovered that his qualifications weren't recognised, and found it impossible to find work.

And then he contacted Just Straight Talk.

The non-profit making company, set up with a £500 grant, is celebrating 10 years of helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It helped Ebubekir get the relevant accreditation in this country, and this month he marks his first 12 months of using his much-needed skills to help the people of the Black Country.

Ebubekir is one of just 3,900 people who have used the services of JST, as it is more commonly known over the past 10 years. Some, like Ebubekir, come to the organisation for help seeking employment. Others need help with housing or debt problems. It also runs projects making it easier for the elderly to access the internet. And while this is good news for those whose lives have been transformed, it is also good news for the taxpayer too. Independent auditors have calculated net savings to the taxpayer of nearly £9 million over the past decade.

Just Straight Talk – or JST as it is more commonly known – was the brainchild of Kate Beale, who had spent several years working in the voluntary service.

Today, the company employs 23 staff – as well as an army of volunteers – and has offices in Dudley town centre and Coseley, and also runs a community cafe at the YMCA centre in West Bromwich. Mrs Beale's efforts saw her awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen's New Year's Honours List, with special mention given to her work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Figures supplied by Birmingham-based Ark Consulting calculates the company has saved the taxpayer more than £11.7 million over the past decade, in return for payments of just under £2.8 million. Of this £3.5 million has come through finding permanent housing for rough sleepers, and an estimated £2.6 million by helping people find work.It has also saved the authorities a further £2.3 million by helping people manage their debts.

But the figures only tell part of the story, and the real benefits can be found in the number of lives that have been transformed.

David Laws was initially referred to JST by Dudley job centre, but support worker Rachel Evans quickly discovered that he needed immediate support with his mental health. David had previously worked at Royal Mail in Birmingham, but his life was turned upside down when he witnessed a suicide.

"This incident made a huge negative impact on David’s communication and ability to engage with people," says Mrs Evans.

"He began suffering with significant depression and anxiety.

"When I firstly met David, he hardly would speak any words.

Mrs Evans says her first action was to contact David's GP and arrange for professional mental health support.

And she said that during further sessions, she realised he had a passion for photography. Mrs Evans arranged for him to start a photography training course.

He has since held his own photography exhibition, which Mrs Evans attended, and is working on a book featuring his photographs of pubs.

JST's 10th anniversary was marked with a dinner at Dudley Canal Trust, attended by the Mayor of Sandwell Councillor Richard Jones.

But amid the joy of the celebrations, Mrs Beale warns of more problems on the horizon as the cost-of-living crisis takes hold and funding for organisations such as hers comes to and end. Much of JST's funding has come through the National Lottery and the European Social Fund, but the latter is due to end shortly following Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

She warns that many of the smaller not-for-profit, or "third sector" organisations will disappear in the coming years, when they are needed more than ever. She fears a "tidal wave" of people reaching breaking point, but slipping through the net.

“This is only going to get worse with the cost-of-living crisis, and organisations such as ours losing valuable funding," she says.

"Many small third-sector organisations and charities providing vital, trusted support won’t be here in the medium to long term.

"We'll still be here, I'm determined about that. Despite these challenges, I remain optimistic for the future."

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