St. John the Baptist church, in the centre of Halesowen has become severely overgrown in the past few years. So much so, criminals had begun using the shrubbery to stash stolen goods, drugs and weapons.
However, the painting, regeneration and clearing of the churchyard is currently bringing the neighbourhood closer together around the festive period.
Since the beginning of October the site has been spruced up by ex-offenders who are on the Community Payback scheme and a band of willing volunteers.
Chief Superintendent of Dudley Police, Sally Bourner, met up with PCSOs Aneal Butt and Chanel Campbell from the Halesowen Neighbourhood Team last Friday (21/12) and headed to the church to find out first-hand what a difference the programme has had.
They joined Father Dominic, and avid churchgoer Ken who is heading up the project on behalf of the church. Together they took a tour of the grounds and Ken, who is also involved with Halesowen in Bloom, explained how the work has snowballed into a long term project.
Ken said: “At first they just cleared all of the overgrowth, and that was a mammoth job in itself. But we’ve now got plans to create a nature walk and a sensory garden for people to come and enjoy.”
During the tour he pointed out two memorials which had been tidied up, newly painted railings and a compost bin that’s making good use of the autumn leaf fall. All conjured up by the group to make the area a nicer, safer, more pleasurable space.
PCSO Campbell explained: “The churchyard was in a really, really bad way. It’s a huge space, with a lot of greenery and woodland.
“Over the past few years it had become really overgrown and there were reports of crime and anti-social behaviour happening here all times of the day and night.
“Local people were scared to come to the church because they didn’t feel safe. Today is the first time I’ve seen families tending to their loved one’s graves in person and it’s given me the best feeling!”
Chanel and Aneal, who are both religious themselves, are immensely proud of the turnaround the church has had in such a short space of time.
They’ve had amazing feedback from the six ex-offenders taking part in the scheme, the congregation and local people alike.
The Community Payback coordinator got in touch with them to say that despite working on many projects over the years this is the first time that they have been thanked for what they’ve done. And it’s inspired many of those on the project to continue in this line of work.
Chief Superintendent Bourner, who visited on Friday to hear about the initiative, said: “The Community Payback project was an idea put into motion by Chanel and Aneal, but it’s now taken on a life of its own and I’m extremely proud to hear the positive impact it’s had to people on all sides.
“Walking around today we saw people tending to the graves of their loved ones; something that hasn’t happened for a long time.
“More people are coming to the space and engaging with one another as a community, crime has reduced as a result and we’ve diverted a group of people away from law-breaking by channelling their energy into something really positive and building their self-esteem.
“As much as policing is about arresting offenders and bringing people to justice it is also about using our position to bring groups of people together to kick-start something really amazing, and that’s exactly what’s happened here – we had the idea, but it’s the local community themselves who have come together and reclaimed the churchyard from a place that was feared, to make it what it is today.”