As a ten-year-old, Callum Richardson was left in a coma by a stroke. Now, he’s a key part of a charity about to be honoured with the King’s Award for Voluntary service. PETER BARRON reports

AS he high-fives children, and chats to their parents, Callum Richardson looks the perfect fit in the community food shop that’s become his second home.

“I just love helping people,” he says during a break from helping out in the busy shop that’s run by the Sprouts Community Food Charity in Thornaby. “When I see someone smile, it makes me feel there’s a reason for everything...”

What the customers don’t know is that 25-year-old Callum nearly lost his life due to a stroke when he was just ten, and still suffers from health issues resulting from the brain injury it caused.

Unable to work full-time, but desperate to find a purpose in his life, he started volunteering with Sprouts at the start of the pandemic, and the result has been life-changing.

It has given him confidence, fulfilment, and a sense of making a difference in his local community.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Callum Richardson overlooking Victoria Park, in ThornabyCallum Richardson overlooking Victoria Park, in Thornaby (Image: Peter Barron)

Indeed, he’s become a key member of the charity that will next month be recognised with the King’s Award for Voluntary Service – the equivalent of the MBE for voluntary organisations.

In partnership with North Star Housing, Sprouts – with its dedicated team of around 30 volunteers – has become a lifeline to families in the Stockton area since the pandemic.

The charity’s eco-shop, in a prefabricated building in Victoria Park, uses donations from supermarkets and other retailers to sell cut-price food, clothing, toiletries and baby supplies that would otherwise go to landfill.

Locals have dubbed it the ‘Little Asda’, and Callum can usually be found there, either serving behind the till, helping with the heavy lifting, or working in the adjacent community garden.

Seeing the enthusiasm and sense of humour he brings to his role, it’s hard to imagine what he went through 15 years ago when encephalitis led to a stroke, which left him in a coma for two weeks.

“I don’t remember much about it because I was on extreme levels of morphine, but my mum had to stop working to care for me 24/7, so I know what it’s like for families to struggle financially,” he explains.

Callum had to learn to walk, talk and write all over again, and still suffers from fatigue, clumsiness, and problems with concentration.

Just before Covid, he was training to be a teaching assistant with special needs children, but decided it wasn’t for him.

However, he’d seen how the Sprouts charity stepped up to the challenge during the pandemic, by helping to feed children who were going hungry, and he decided to be part of it.

He’s never looked back, forging a growing bond with fellow volunteers and service-users. He’s even been known to model the donated clothes – including a Hawaiian shirt and trousers.

Last year, his efforts were rewarded when he and fellow volunteer, Joan Naylor, were chosen to represent Sprouts at a Westminster Abbey Christmas carol service.

“It was the first time I’d been to London, and it was mind-blowing – I thought I was in a dream,” he laughs.

Callum's volunteering has now led to a part-time job, and he will be adding to his responsibilities by training to become a portable appliance tester (PAT), so the charity can safely distribute electrical equipment.

Sprouts evolved from a company supplying fresh, nutritious food to private nurseries, and manager, Debbie Fixter, says Callum sums up the spirit of what the charity has become.

“We couldn’t do a lot of what we do without him because he’s always willing to take on more,” she says.

And what Sprouts does is truly outstanding. As well as the community shop and garden, the charity runs an adjacent café, which is the base for a monthly youth cafe, in association with Corner House Youth Project.

There’s a free breakfast club at the café for children on the way to school, and youngsters eat free there during every school holiday.

Meanwhile, across at the Thornaby Hub, in nearby Havelock Street, cooking workshops are held every Tuesday afternoon to help the community become more self-sufficient.

During the February half-term holidays, Sprouts teamed up with another local charity, Eastern Ravens, to spend evenings cooking with different age groups.

In addition, Sprouts runs another eco-shop, in partnership with Cultivate Tees Valley, at Arlington Park, in Stockton, as well as an outreach cooking project, with the Roseworth Big Local initiative, at Kiora Hall.

The impact of Sprouts on these local communities is profound, and that’s why Lord Lieutenant, Sue Snowdon, will present the charity with the King’s Award at Arlington Park on April 25.

“There’s such a demand out there and we’re lucky to have such an amazing team,” says Debbie Fixter, who will represent the charity at a Buckingham Palace garden party, alongside volunteer Joan Naylor, as part of the award.

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According to Debbie's calculations, the value of the volunteers, in time donated, equates to £60,000 a year.

“The King's Award is testament to what an incredible job they do, because although we’re not an emergency service, it often feels like we are.”

Debbie is also quick to acknowledge the pivotal role North Star has played in helping the charity make such a difference.

It was the not-for-profit housing provider that allowed Sprouts to use its building, known as the Thornaby Hub, as a focal-point for community support when the pandemic struck.

"North Star has been crucial. When we asked if we could use The Hub, the immediate answer was yes, and they help us with funding every year," adds Debbie.

"What makes working with North Star so special is that they give us the trust and freedom to do what needs to be done."

The latest example of North Star's support is the launch of a 'detached youth project', aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour.

North Star also uses its links with Citizens Advice to arrange financial advice to help families manage debt, and provides access to computers to tackle digital poverty.

Coral Smith, a community connector with North Star, plays a vital role, working closely with Sprouts to help develop a wide range of local projects, and she has no doubt that the King's Award is well deserved.

"The beauty of Sprouts is that it's a charity run by volunteers with a deep understanding of the needs of the area at the grass roots, and my job is to help them maximise the impact they make," she says.

"Callum's story is an example of the difference Sprouts makes not just to the service-users, but the well-being of its volunteers.

Back in the community shop, Callum Richardson is again serving behind the counter, and a mum, with a toddler in a pushchair, gives him a shy smile of gratitude as she carries off a bag of shopping.

It's a smile that makes everything worthwhile.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Callum Richardson behind the counter in the community shopCallum Richardson behind the counter in the community shop (Image: Peter Barron)