The ‘Tiser interview: Lisa Harrison from the Arena food bank in Ilkeston

The Arena Church stage The Big Idea on Beauvale Drive park, despite the rainy weather! l-r is Deputy Mayor Val Custance, Lisa Harrison Community Manager, Kristian Thorpe Senior Pastor and Glenys Walmsley Consort.
The Arena Church stage The Big Idea on Beauvale Drive park, despite the rainy weather! l-r is Deputy Mayor Val Custance, Lisa Harrison Community Manager, Kristian Thorpe Senior Pastor and Glenys Walmsley Consort.

It was five years ago when Lisa Harrison accepted the offer to head up the Arena food bank in Ilkeston .

Lisa,now 44, who has lived in Cotmanhay all her life, said: “I went through a difficult period of my life. The reason I can do the job is because I have lived that lifestyle- I have been on benefits and have made bad choices which have caught up with me and affected not only me but all my family.”

It was when Lisa started going to church as an adult that things began to change “I started to listen to what the preacher was saying about the offer of a new start through choice.”

Lisa’s dad died 20 years ago ,at the age of 42, from a drugs overdose. He had spent much of his life in and out of prison and had only been released weeks before his death.

Speaking about her childhood Lisa said: “It could be deemed as a dysfunctional household but that’s more because of my father.

“At that time I didn’t know it was all about choices, I thought we were born either like me, or you - what I deem as regular normal people. Then there were people who were born Christians. The reality is that anyone can have a different life if they make different choices.

“I was raised on benefits so I thought ’yes’, I could give my life to something like that (the food bank) because I’ve been there. I have been on benefits for 16 years of my adult life .

“For a long time I believed you were worse off when you came off benefits. It was a cushion and for that many years I didn’t know how to come off them.”

After years of surviving on benefit money Lisa took on a cleaning job to ’ween her back to work.’

“It’s rewarding for your self-esteem realising there’s a different life to be had,’ she said.

In the five years that Lisa has been at the food bank it has progressed greatly. There is now a team of five running the community project with future plans including opening a clothing bank, and a project at the former Woolworths building in Bath Street.

“We have evolved and evolved and now have a team of 70 people - six of us are on paid staff.’ said Lisa, ‘It’s been quite a journey and we have a diverse team, there are Christians and none Christians. One guy comes in on his day off.”

When she’s not working at the food bank or spending time with her two grandchildren Lisa enjoys running and going on long walks at local spots such as the Nutbrook trail.

Said Lisa: “I like being out in the natural environment, the job is mentally demanding and we have the privilege of being able to help people. One member of staff used to be homeless.”

Since her father’s death 20 years ago her mum has re-married.

“My life has moved on to good places, said Lisa, ‘My mum and her husband are now Christians. My brother-in -law and father-in-law are very supportive and have been very good in-laws to me.

“I’m not one of those people who is like ‘Woe is me’. I’ve not only lived it but survived it and have been made stronger and have more freedom. If god took me today I would be happy because the later part of my life has been that good, making different choices and being able to help people. Just being able to help any one of those people is a privilege.”

The food bank in Ilkeston has certainly gained much recognition since it was set up in 2010, even attracting the attention of BBC’s Inside Out. But what does the future hold?

“I want to get more people in this community involved or employed by us,’ said Lisa,’ I want to see more broken lives mended. I want to keep having the ability and finances and volunteers to keep running our programmes to help our community.

“For me, I’ve given my life to good causes so we can make our community liveable again. I’m living my dream.”