Salford Graduate Alexandra Hoskyn founded the Chatty Café Scheme – a space that brings people together.
According to the Office for National Statistics, loneliness is a health pandemic. Often times, we can easily undermine the true effect a lack of human interaction can have on people – after experiencing the brush effect of it personally, Alex knew she wanted to combat the impact it has on people, and that’s exactly what she is doing.
The Chatty Café Scheme encourages cafes, libraries and community centres to designate a Chatter & Natter table where customers are welcome to sit and talk to other customers, if they are happy to do so.
“The main aim for me was human interaction – when I had my first son, I found out that was the one thing I found difficult to do during the dat. I would go out of the house a lot – but yet I wasn’t having human interaction with people. It got me thinking, ‘If I was feeling like that, there must be other people feeling similar, from different ages, and backgrounds. So, it was really about bringing people together,” Alex said.
However, the UK was faced with an unpredictable change in life at the beginning of this year, and so was the Scheme…
Due to the global pandemic, many businesses had to close – and in turn, many places that accommodated Chatter & Natter tables had to shut temporarily, or unfortunately, permanently. This unplanned action posed the question of, what now? Due to the regulations and the situation towering over us, the Scheme was no longer able to affect people on a face-to-face basis, but Alex knew she couldn’t let it disappear completely.
“When Covid hit, we were thinking about what we should do, and I felt that it’s really important for us to stay visible, more than ever. We really wanted to stay committed to keep doing things,” says Hoskyn, when discussing her initial thoughts when Covid hit.
Alex and her team successfully managed to achieve just that.
Since lockdown, the whole Chatty Café Scheme team had organised Virtual Chatty Café sessions over Zoom three times per week – Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Friday’s at 1pm as well as on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – and everybody at the age of 18 and over is more than welcome to join in.
What happens during a Virtual Chatty Café Session?
“It’s just a chat – we are not a service of any kind. The entire call could just be about what’s been on the television this week, or what you had for dinner. There is no agenda.
“We see a mixture of both familiar faces and new people every week – people join from care homes, with learning disabilities, we even had a GP join in for a chat. We also have a few men which is really great – because men can be quite difficult to engage with as they don’t tend to put themselves forward to things like this.” Alex adds.
“Jenny [Alex’s sister] does all of it [zoom calls] and she’s brilliant. She remembers everything about people and writes things down to refer back to. If she notices that somebody is particularly quiet or a bit nervous, she will bring them into it. She’s really, really good,” reassures Alex.
If you are interested in joining a Zoom session contact: email@example.com
Along with the weekly zoom calls, there has also been a volunteer programme set up which Abi, the volunteer manager, is in charge of.
The volunteer programme allows social prescribers to refer a person that they believe may benefit from an essence of human interaction.
“Abi recruits volunteers to make weekly phone calls to people that have been referred. She matches a person up to a referral and arranges a weekly 30-minute conversation between them – simply for a chat,” explains Alex.
In terms of current statistics, there is 54 people on the list to do the volunteering, 33 volunteers are making weekly calls, 83 are waiting to receive calls, and 76 are receiving calls.
“It has been really effective. Some people say that we are the only person we speak to in a week. We really do take time to make sure that the people feel valued,” Alex admits. There is no qualifications required for becoming a volunteer, as Alex says, “There is a lot of people that want to give back to the community at the moment.”
To volunteer / refer yourself or someone you know to the programme contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition, there is a blog dedicated to the Chatty Café Scheme in which Alex posts to regularly. She writes about her own experience of feeling a lack of decent human interaction, mental health awareness, and her thoughts and feelings on multiple matters circling the world. This helps keep up the connection between readers and Alex and personifies a true feeling of a conversation over a hot drink in a café.
If you would like to check out the blog click here: https://thechattycafescheme.com
The first Chatter & Natter table appeared in 2017, in an Oldham café – where Alex was born and is currently living – and since, the tables explored the streets of Europe and the foreign overseas while settling in cafes, community centres and libraries.
There are 138 Chatter & Natter tables in and around Salford alone, and thousands more around Europe including places like Poland and Gibraltar. Influential as it is, the Scheme had expanded overseas and settled in establishments in Australia, America and Canada, meaning that the outreach of its comforting chats is greater than ever.
It was a morning visit to a local café back in 2016, that struck a chord in Alex’s heart and inspired her to begin the process of developing the Scheme…
“I was at a café with my new-born son, and on a table next to me was an elderly lady looking very down and fed up, and on another table, there was a guy with a disability and his carer, and they just sat there, not talking to each other. It struck me that we were all sat there in this café at different tables looking quite fed up and I thought, ‘God, if we could all sit together while drinking our tea or coffee, we might have left just feeling a little bit happier.”
However, though the idea for the Chatty Café Scheme has always been there within Alex since that day, it was the lack of proper encouragement from others that delayed its beginning process.
“I mentioned it to people and they said, ‘that’d be nice.’ But it was when I went out for breakfast with my mum and she said that I should 100% do it and was just really, really encouraging, that I thought, ‘I’m going to try it,” reveals Hoskyn.
From the start, Alex shared that she wanted to put in as little money into it as possible from the start as she didn’t want to lose anything, in case nothing did come out of it.
Hoskyn stated that the scariest part of it all was pitching the idea to cafés.
“When you start something, you don’t really know how people will receive it.
“People were really positive and open to the idea, and very supportive, it was quite organic,” reminisces the mother-of-two.
Costa Coffee, one of the largest coffee chains in Europe, is a full-time collaborator on the Chatty Café Scheme. A few other big names that are current collaborates on the Scheme are Sainsbury’s and Selfridges.
Alex reveals that one of the matters she struggled with was putting a price on her work surrounding the Scheme. She recalls sending out packs for the cafes to display on the table with her own money, and in turn, struggled to put a value on what she was doing.
“If you are emotionally invested in something, it’s hard to see the value of your work,” stated Alex.
Hoskyn admits that it was after she put a price of just mere £20 per year to upkeep the tables for each café, that more establishments joined in.
“It’s like a psychology – if someone gives you something for free, it’s really different to you buying something because if you buy something it’s like you really want it – it becomes official,” Alex stated.
However, Alex repeatedly clarifies that the Scheme is ‘not a money-making machine’, as she says that ‘people are interested in doing this, because it brings people together.’
Soon enough, the word got around and reached overseas, inviting Australia, Canada, Poland, America and Gibraltar into expanding the Scheme along their local streets.
“My mum flew to Australia and spent the day with the lady interested in setting up an Australian arm of it. She actually has it registered as a charity over there now, and got funding for it. She’s pretty much involved in everything,” Alex recalls.
In addition, Alex was invited to do a TedTalk in Krakow by a man interested in setting up Chatter & Natter tables in Poland, and so she flew there last winter to attend.
Alex is very adamant on discouraging false labels about the scheme, such as ‘loneliness’.
“The word loneliness is a very heavy word – I want it to be viewed as bringing people together and human interaction. As soon as you put loneliness on something – imagine, ‘this table is for lonely people’ – it changes the way it is perceived. This scheme offers you a chat, that’s all it is – you don’t have to commit to anything, it’s just about having a general conversation with strangers. That’s it,” the mother-of-two explains.
The Chatty Café Scheme has touched many lives over the last three years – whether it is thanks to the Chatter & Natter tables, the Zoom Sessions or the volunteer programme– many people have reported back to Jenny about their experience.
“There was two men that met at a Sainsbury’s table and ended up doing their weekly shopping together…two women found out the were weirdly related. There was an elderly lady and a woman in her 30s – the woman in her 30s admitted that she had learned more about the elderly lady in the short conversation that they had than she knew about all of her work colleagues put together,” Alex recounts.
In regards to the weekly voluntary calls, Jenny recalls several statements from various people regarding their personal experience.
“I feel uplifted that I spoke to someone. I speak to my daughter but I don’t want to burden her with how I feel down, I don’t express my thoughts with my daughter like I do with you. I always feel better after our call.”
“At the end of each day, ‘I think did I speak to anyone today?’ and Monday’s I can always say that I did.”
Right now, Alex revealed that her and the team, as well as the lady in Australia, are focusing on developing a new website for the Chatty Café Scheme, which she describes will be much better to use for all the different countries involved.
While The Chatty Café Scheme is a passion project of Alex’s, she’s been mainly focusing on working as a part time social worker, with adults with disabilities and Austism at the Oldham Council while being a Mum of two.
“I really, really love my job. I love what I do. I enjoy working with different types of people,” Alex admits.
If you are in need or want of a chat, then The Virtual Chatty Café is welcoming you with open arms.
“The Chatty Café Scheme – the tables, the calls, the Zooms – they are aimed at anybody over the age of 18 – any person, any background, any job. For me, it has always been about mixing people up – I never wanted to categorize it.
I think that people often benefit from chatting to people different to themselves. I wanted to give people that opportunity,” Alex admits.
“I think that talking to another person doesn’t just make your day better, but also theirs. Be brave. You have nothing to lose, it might just change yours or somebody’s day,” Alex encourages.
Remember: There is no agenda. It is just a chat.
Here is a tutorial on how to use Zoom: