A veteran has created the first Veteran’s Centre and café in North Shields town centre to continue the work of Operation Veteran, a social enterprise supporting veterans and their families in their return to civilian life.
The new café and veteran centre launched in the Summer by founder Jim Owens, based on Nile Street in North Shields. Operation Veteran has been running for over four years with the assistance of the North Tyneside Business Factory, supported by the ERDF. The organisation was forced to change direction earlier this year to counter the negative effect of the Covid lockdown on outreach community services in the Borough.
Struggling to deliver their regular social community groups and hubs during lockdown, Jim Owens decided a more permanent base for the social enterprise would be necessary if their work was to continue. After coming across the former Vintage Tea Rooms in North Shields, Jim realised that a Covid-secure meeting place as well as an additional resource centre could offer a solution to the future of the social enterprise.
Jim Owens, MD of Operation Veteran comments: “The opening of the café and Veteran centre is a landmark moment not only for me personally, but for everyone who has been involved in the work of Operation Veteran as a successful and growing social enterprise. We not only have a permanent base to carry on our work but also a longer-term trading arm in the form of the café.
“Although the coronavirus pandemic had a profound impact on our ability to deliver, I like to look at the positives in that it has also led to the creation of our veterans centre in the heart of a community that we wholeheartedly support.”
Jim Owens (58) set up Operation Veteran in 2016 following decades working in the region to support individuals struggling with problems arising from unemployment, mental health and drug and alcohol issues.
A veteran himself, Jim fought in the Falklands war while serving in the Royal Air Force at the age of 19. On his return, his own struggle to fit back into civilian life led to eight years of homelessness and a long-term battle with alcoholism before he was able to get his life on track and realise his dream of helping others to overcome similar problems in their life. Jim worked as a lecturer as well as pioneering a number of unemployment and support programmes in the region. His work led him to realise the needs of veterans and their families were often overlooked in the community due to a lack of understanding and funding.
Jim comments: “The main purpose of Operation Veteran is to provide a community service to deliver a source of care, compassion and understanding to veterans, individuals who work in blue light services and their families in their adjustment to civilian life. I know the challenges that exist when trying to exist and thrive in society after service. We act as a transition point by signposting, creating groups and one to one support opportunities, organising shared experiences and being a focal point for assessment and referral to specialist advice and support.
“When lockdown first began in March 2020, the social hubs and drop-in centres we set up throughout the region for the hundreds of individuals using our services had to be cancelled almost overnight. We had to quickly adapt our offering to ensure continuity for some of our more vulnerable individuals. This meant one-to-one support to help manage the loneliness and isolation that was prevalent during lockdown but also carry out more basic support. We ensured there was enough food in the house and that gas and electric services were topped up. When the world shut down, we really needed to make sure that people had a lifeline still to the outside world.”
It was during this time that Jim started to look at more permanent premises for Operation Veteran. After finding the perfect space on Nile Street in North Shields, he set about refurbishing the space with the help of other veterans and a number of local tradesman happy to donate time or materials to create the café and resource centre.
Jim comments: “We had a donation of £140 from North Shields Football Club as well as support from the likes of Tynemouth Decorators to help us get the place up and running and ready to receive customers. We are just delighted with how its turned out and we now have a Covid-secure café for customers to visit as well as our additional resource centre open to the community. We have over 200 veterans and families on our contact list and we now have the space to hold social groups, meetings, presentations and support people onto their next steps with free wifi and a computer for community use.
“We are a social enterprise aware of the positive impact of our work so that as businesses close, we can continue our support services in any way we can. Toni Clark at the Business Factory has been a constant source of help and support throughout our journey. She has not only offered help and guidance on how to run a business but as a social enterprise specialist, she has been able to draw on her contacts and partnerships to give us the best chance at continuing the Operation Veteran service.”
Supported by ERDF, The Business Factory is delivered by TEDCO Business Support on behalf of North Tyneside Council to help new enterprises access the help and guidance they need to finance and set up a new venture in the borough.
Toni Clark, Business Advisor at The Business Factory comments: “Operation Veteran is a vital lifeline to many people in our community and their ability to continue their service was severely impacted by lockdown. At a time of social distancing, their enterprise was focused on using social interaction to break down communication barriers and reduce loneliness. Instead of just shutting down, they adapted and thrived by securing permanent premises. They now have a place to call home and integrate their social hub into their new café as well as their well-stocked resource centre. It is an ideal example of how to turn a negative in business into a positive and I’m thrilled for Jim and his many dedicated volunteers.”