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From volunteer to senior manager – 20 years helping people in East London

When Tahmina Begum walked through the doors of the Bromley by Bow Centre in 2003, little did she know the impact she would make over the next two decades.

She has since supported thousands of people to access the advice and guidance they need to live a better life. She’s just celebrated her twentieth year working at the Centre – a community charity offering more than 40 services in east London, funded in part by British Gas Energy Trust.

Tahmina first became aware of the centre in 2003, just as she was transitioning from college to university life. With her family not fully understanding the tax and benefit implications, they sought advice from their local advice centre.

While there, Tahmina witnessed first-hand the impact the advisors could have on people’s lives.

She said:

“I went in there with my father and while we were waiting to be seen I could see someone extremely distressed. They were in tears. But by the end of the conversation with the advisor, I could see the situation had been resolved and they were much happier. The manager supported us that day, and then asked if I was interested in volunteering.”

Tahmina jumped at the chance to volunteer alongside her law degree, and soon caught the bug. After just one month volunteering, Tahmina qualified as an advisor after taking an NVQ and got a paid job working on the social welfare project supporting people to access the right benefits.

And after moving her studies part-time, she worked on a British Gas Energy Fund project in the mid-2000s, supporting people to pay their energy bills following referrals from their GPs.

Almost two decades later, some of the same problems exist – but people’s situations have worsened.

Tahmina said:

“There’s still a big issue with people not getting the right benefits that they’re entitled to, which in turn affects multiple areas of the person’s standard of living. Low income impacts on the quality of the person to ‘get around’, take control in social activities, afford adequate quantity and quality of food and clothing, heat their homes to recommended levels and maintain all their household bills.  

“What I have witnessed in my early years as an advisor is that social welfare problems often cluster – for example, a financial problem may be precipitated by a welfare benefits problem and may result in a housing problem.

“However, since last year, the cost of living crisis has not only impacted those that are in receipt of state benefits, but also increased the financial pressure on employed people, with many struggling to pay bills and maintain their lifestyles and their mental wellbeing.”

Bromley by Bow Centre’s current British Gas Energy Trust funded project, ‘Energise’, offers income maximisation checks, benefits support, advocacy with creditors and energy suppliers , debt write off and energy efficiency checks. Since April of this year, they have been able to manage over £46,000 of debt from 221 clients.

Tahmina continued: “There’s definitely a difference between the energy projects I worked on years ago versus today. Looking back at annual reports a few years ago, we could see that the biggest arrears people had were around £1,200. Now, those figures are around £6,000. Before, we’d be looking at payment plans to slowly get rid of the debt. Now we’re having to look at options to write-off or reduce the amounts owed. People are really struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

“We’re also supporting people who are struggling to deal with their energy provider. Sometimes they’re on the phone for ages and can’t get anywhere until we step in to act as an advocate. And then we can refer people to other services to help them with wider aspects of their life.

“The good thing is that it can all be dealt with under one roof. We don’t have to refer people to other organisations for support as the mix of funding we get from providers like British Gas Energy Trust means we can offer all the support someone needs in one place.

“But the important thing is that it’s having a positive impact on people’s lives.”

Tahmina has worked on numerous projects at Bromley By Bow Centre and now works as Delivery Manager, after moving away from frontline advice and guidance but towards the management and strategic delivery of services.

She added:

“What I find really rewarding is to see the impact that I have made. We can give our time and have such a big impact on someone’s life. Most people who seek support have complex personal situations and longer-term underlying issues. They need a range of services and revisit them at different times in their lives.

“Our services are designed to meet both urgent need and enable long-term change. That is what kept me in the role for so long and what I will miss the most in my current role.

“Now as a Delivery Manager, I realise how much knowledge I have possessed from my managers over the years and it’s time to share and pass the knowledge onto my peers which leads to wonderful opportunities.”

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