Email Us

Follow Us

My journey: Ruth Fox from Footprints in the Community

Footprints in the Community is a charity working to reduce poverty and isolation in Redcar & Cleveland. Its many projects include a foodbank, The Shed, a cafe, Next Step Shop, First Steps baby items and Reflections dementia support to name a few. Ruth Fox is CEO of the organisation and gave us this honest and inspiring interview about her journey.

Ruth, tell us about Footprints in the Community. How did it start?

I started it 10 years just as a café, a hobby really in a local church hall. If you’d said to me 10 years you’d be running a half a million pound organisation with 20 staff and 200 volunteers I would have just laughed and said it’s a joke! Things have just developed, more from accident, with people talking to us and saying we need this to happen. That’s how things have snowballed. It’s been a massive learning curve. I never set out to be a CEO, it was not on my agenda. I’ve probably made lots of mistakes along the way but we’ve also helped so many people and that’s what we’re here for.

Our aims are to establish a variety of services under one umbrella to support people living in Redcar and Cleveland to help reduce poverty and isolation and improve health and wellbeing and to provide a network of support to local people and organisations. We launched the town’s first foodbank in January 2013 in conjunction with Churches Together in the area. Other churches agreed to host foodbanks and my role eventually became formalised as an employee.

Today we run nine foodbanks but have a deeper reach through a range of other services. We run ‘The Shed’, a sociable woodworking shop for people to dabble in making things, have a natter in an informal and supportive space. We have 2 ‘Next Step Shops’ providing subsidised food, alongside money management courses and advice and support. ‘First Steps’ recycles pre-loved baby clothes and equipment, and Book Club distributes packs of new books in schools and through our projects. ‘Reflections’ is our weekly dementia group and ‘Bridging the Gap’ involves pre-school children being taken to a local care home to interact with elderly residents.

These are just some of the many projects we run to meet our mission.  Footprints Community Café now operates from Redcar High Street and is open 6 days a week.

What is the social mission and how do you assess opportunities to develop new projects?

Our mission is to support people living in Redcar & Cleveland to help reduce poverty and isolation and improve health and wellbeing.  

Whatever new project we consider, we ask ourselves does it fit our mission, and sometimes we have to say no. Our mission has quite a wide scope, but there have been occasions where something is not for us. We’ve been running a warm hub in a local community centre provided by a housing provider over winter for 3 or 4 months. It was going really well with 40 people attending our sessions, mainly older people who felt isolated, and we ran it for 6 months.

However when we looked at running it longer term, that’s not really what we were set up for. Sometimes you have your heart ruling your head, so we took it to trustees, and realising it would cost us money to employ someone specifically for this, the trustees made the decision to pull out. For me, this was a really hard decision, but we’re already quite stretched as it is and would have meant we were spread too thinly. Sometimes you have to take these difficult decisions for the greater good.

Footprints in the Community

How much of your turnover is given to the social mission side of your work?

We still rely heavily on grants rather than trading, it still feels like we’re at the early days of our work, and we know we need to start looking at how to be more sustainable. The only Social Enterprise part of trading is our café which was what got us started in 2011. We’re now on the high street open 6 days a week, with Kat, our wonderful manager who was a former food bank client. We employ 3 staff at the cafe, have a few contracts and are breaking even, but it’s a hard environment to be in with the cost of living crisis and costs. But it provides jobs for local people and a lovely welcoming space, where people feel happy to come, even by themselves, as there’s always someone to talk to. 

Why did you approach LARCH programme for support?

We started out talking to LARCH last Autumn 2022 about our First Steps project selling preloved baby clothes and equipment, looking to see how we could make it more enterprising. The project started out when I distinctly remember a young mum coming to the foodbank with a wonky wheel on her pram having to carry her baby,  but she’d brought the pram to carry the food back in. It made me think there must be lots of people with good quality equipment out there that’s no longer needed. So we started First Steps, asked for donations and got a massive response. We give out a lot of items but still have a large amount of stock in our warehouse.

Our approach to LARCH was to further develop a second-hand baby shop in Redcar. Although there are 2 baby shops already here they are both high-end and out of the price range of a lot of people. Lots of the donations we receive are new still with tags on, or very good quality. We get a lot of prams, pushchairs etc. but due to safety some baby stuff can’t be resold such as cot mattresses, car seats and safety gadgets like stair gates. We want to be able to purchase these and give them to those that can’t afford such essentials.

When I started talking to LARCH they looked at our existing, very limited online shop and said you should expand your online shop, have a baby section in there, have a click-and-collect area, or come in and buy in shop. So that’s where we’ve got to at the moment. We’ve had a report done by Claire, the LARCH consultant, which is full of lovely ideas and ways we can promote this. She’s also suggested expanding it to have a ‘Shed’ section selling the wooden items that this project produces. All profits will go to support our projects and reduce our need for grants.

How has your relationship developed with LARCH?

More recently we’ve been looking at an alternative building that needs a lot of work to house our operations. Neta Kaur-Brown (LARCH Programme Manager) felt the next stage would be to write a business plan, so instead of just doing a plan for the shop, we’re considering including a move to new premises, looking at investment from LARCH.

It’s funny how things come back around. I already knew Claire Yates from 10 years ago when I sat at my kitchen table surrounded by boxes getting ready to move house, writing my very first business plan with her help. When she came to our warehouse earlier this year and saw the scale of our work she said “Ruth, what on earth have you done!” From that kitchen table to a massive warehouse full of food, baby stuff, household equipment, it’s been quite a journey!

We have so much going on we said to LARCH we didn’t want to rush anything. They said that’s fine, let us know when you’re ready, and they’ve been really patient and understanding. Neta arranged for me to meet up with someone from Key Fund as we might need a loan, so there is potential there. It’s been so helpful having an outsider’s view on how to grow what we’re doing in a sustainable way. If we had it my way I’d just give everything away for free! But that’s not going to help us stay around to help long-term. To have someone else’s view that understands us has been really beneficial to me.

What advice would you give to someone else starting out a social enterprise in the Teesside area?

Celebrating our 10th anniversary this year has made me realise how good it is to look back and see what you’ve achieved. My biggest regret is not using a journal someone gave me to record what we’ve done, things like key dates and achievements along the way. I’m having to look back over minutes to piece it all together. So keep a journal, record the highs and lows, and how you managed them as you do forget.

I also find it helpful putting ideas down on paper, then you can play about with them, put them into sequence. I do love lists! I’d also seek lots of advice, for example LARCH getting my simple idea of just a baby shop and developing it into an online shop, those wider perspectives really help.  An outside perspective is essential.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt since starting your journey?

I’ve been very fortunate to have a good board of supportive trustees and a good staff team, with amazing volunteers too. I don’t think of myself as a ‘business’ person, I’m a people person, and I think valuing the people you work with and appreciating their skills has been a great lesson; not being afraid to ask if you don’t know something too.

Sometimes I look back and think why, what am I doing this for? If I’d put as much energy into starting my own business, I could have made a lot of money. But it’s not a regret, I’m not a money person. What we’re doing here is for the benefit of supporting other people. But it is hard work!

Desmond Tutu famously said “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Instead of being a sticking plaster in a time of crisis, we want to help people not get into that situation in the first place. If that’s money advice, guidance, cooking on a budget that’s what we’re aiming to do in the future. To stop people falling into the poverty trap.

Do you have any mistakes or regrets you’re willing to share?

“People don’t make mistakes, they make learning opportunities” – I like that phrase. We’ve not made mistakes but we’ve certainly developed and learned a lot along the way.

Our only regrets are from agreeing to go into partnerships with larger organisations who were after a contract and being used as ‘bid candy’ to win the contract. It’s happened twice now and we’ve received nothing out of the contract once won. My learning from that is you get agreements signed with lead partners before you put your name to anything.

Tell us what a typical day in your life looks like.

I normally get up at 7am. My husband is retired so he looks after household side of things. Have my breakfast, leave at 8.10am and am in work for 8.30. There’s no typical morning at work as no 2 days the same. I tend to do emails first thing, there’s always something gone wrong! Things like toilets are broken, floors need mopping, staff issues or dealing with funding bids.

For lunch I usually sit at my desk in the office but do make the effort to go to our café once a week, a bit of a busman’s holiday! My current favourite is the grazing platter with lots of different meats, cheeses and crackers.

Back to the afternoon, I’ve found since Covid that more meetings are online, but I do occasionally get out and about, maybe at a networking event or promoting what we do on a stall.

To wind down in the evening I love crafting. We’ve just converted the attic into a space where I can sew, make quilts, memory teddy bears and bags.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love it when we get positive feedback or seeing someone no longer need us. If we get someone saying I don’t need to use the foodbank any more, I’ve got a job, that for me is wow!
Also talking to Shed members, some tell us “if it wasn’t for Shed I’d have ended my life”. We don’t see it every day, but we know people are alive today because of it.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Funding. We’re not government funded and have a turnover of £400k-£500k to find which is hard work. Hence us coming to LARCH to work on being more sustainable through trading.

What’s your biggest work achievement?

It has to be our 10th anniversary this year. To say we’ve got to 10 years when it was never planned, just a hobby. Also seeing the statistics and how many we’ve helped which is approximately 9,000 people this year. But also hearing people’s personal stories, knowing people are alive today, who without us wouldn’t be here today. I always remember a young Dad with cancer and 4 kids who had been given a couple of months to live. He started coming to Shed, and it gave him a purpose, something to enjoy, even when he was really poorly. He went on to live another 2 years.

Knowing we’re helping and supporting local people is exactly why we do what we do.

Our thanks to Ruth for her time giving us this interview.

Find out more about Footprints in the Community on their website

Contact Us

If you can’t find what you are looking for then send us a message!

Start a Conversation

Get in touch if you have a good idea, that you think could be an enterprise or a new income stream that also enables you to deliver social impact.

Sign up to our newsletter

Get news, events and more, direct to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Enabling local people and communities to thrive through a vibrant, inclusive, resilient and economically productive social enterprise and community ownership sector.

@2022 LARCH | Privacy Policy | Website built by In Studio