Weather Icon 5.1°C Partly Cloudy
Oldham woman wins big for her innovative scheme combatting loneliness.
Tuesday 12th March 2019 @ 18:39 by Anna Fletcher
Business Community News

A Lees woman has received an award for innovation and over seven thousand pounds in funding for her creation of the Chatty Café Scheme.

Alex Hoskyn, 35, came up with the idea for the scheme after having her son Henry. The scheme aims to combat loneliness by bringing people of all ages together giving them a space to interact and engage in a social setting.

Alex said: “I did a masters degree in social work when I was 30 and on my final placement I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant. So friends were qualifying and going straight onto jobs, but I couldn’t do that and it was really on my mind, it was a bit of a confidence knock.

“During that time I spent a lot of my time with Henry out and about at groups and in cafes, but you can do all that and still not properly speak to people.”

It was in Sainsbury’s Café in Oldham that the beginnings of Chatty Café began to form.

She remembers: “I looked around the rest of the café and saw an older lady on her own looking a bit fed up, a young guy with a disability and his carer and then there was me with a new born and I just felt invisible and wondered if they felt the same. I thought it would be really nice if there was a table we could have all sat on together even for five minutes for some human interaction with no commitment to see each other again.

“Don’t get me wrong, my partner, friends and family were amazing, but there is that daytime period where you don’t want to put on people and you can often find yourself alone if you don’t work. You just can’t perceive how your life may change whether it is retirement, having a baby, becoming ill- there is so much that could change where you find yourself having less places to interact with people and make connections. That is what I wanted to help with.”

A year later, on her birthday, Alex shared the idea she had been thinking on for a year with her mum who encouraged her to make it a reality.

Alex said: “Her reaction really validated it for me so I decided to give it a go spending as little money as possible but still creating a buzz.”

Alex set up a website and began working with local business Cornerstone to create the branding. She then started to visit local cafes to pitch the idea of a Chatter and Natter table where people could sit down and know anyone else there was open to interacting and having a chat.

Though many cafes said yes, over time Alex discovered that saying yes did not necessarily mean an investment in the idea.

She said: “Places would say yes and I would give them the pack to set up a table, but when I would visit later it wasn’t being used so I had to think about what I could do to really engage businesses and get them excited to invest in the scheme.”

Six months after she began Chatty Café, Alex decided to put a value on the packs.

She said: “I got some good advice and decided to make the scheme £10 a year, which is a small cost, but made such a massive difference because businesses were actively getting involved. I think when you are emotionally involved you don’t always see a situation from a business perspective so I really did seek advice from wherever I could get it.”

Two years on from starting the business and it is continuing to grow with strong partnerships between Chatty Café, Costa and Sainsburys.

Alex said: “I built a relationship with Costa for over a year and they just really got behind it and last year put it out to all stores to see who wanted to get involved and 400 stores got back to them which is just amazing.

“That led to Sainsburys piloting a Chatter and Natter table in 20 of their stores. They sent over their report on how that went and it was such great feedback so I am hoping it will be rolled out there too. We even have businesses in Gibraltar, the USA and Australia taking part.”

Alex recalls feeling very emotional at the support businesses and individuals gave and shed some tears reading the report from Sainsburys which included letters from people who had used the table.

She said: “I feel really proud. Reading how it had impacted real people was just really wonderful. This isn’t a money-making scheme and it never has been, it is about helping people and reducing isolation and I feel quite overwhelmed at how well it has been received and at the genuine connections I have made with businesses.”

Alex continues to work as a social worker as well as running the Chatty Café Scheme and in January was the proud winner of the Innovation for Ageing Award which was looking for solutions to loneliness and isolation in an ageing society.

This saw Alex being invited to the Houses of Parliament as well as giving a three-minute pitch to a judging panel in London.

Unfortunately, as the awards ceremony hosted by David Baddiel, arrived in January, Alex was too unwell to go and had to send her mum in her place, which included giving a presentation on the scheme to the audience.

Alex was checking Twitter see the results when she received a phone call from David Baddiel who congratulated her on winning.

The award also gave Alex £7,500 to put into Chatty Café as well as business support from the Just Group.

She said: “I am so happy as it has allowed me to hire someone to help with admin and continue to grow the scheme and as long as people are interested I will keep going. It gives me a purpose and a passion and I am very lucky. If it all stopped tomorrow though I would still be proud of what I have achieved.

“It just shows that if you have the motivation and the drive you can achieve a lot. It was just me and my laptop at the start but I had a lot of drive even though sometimes all you want to do is go and watch television or something instead of work, you have to put your blood, sweat and tears into it if you feel passionately about it. I would also say seek as much counsel wherever you can, but trust yourself and don’t be put off by others, stand your ground and know there are always things to learn.”