In June 2021 we hosted a very special event on Flanders Field, when the community came together to walk barefoot and raise money for Bonny Downs Food Bank and our project supporting low-income families.
A little history and a Victorian hero
The rolling marshes of the River Roding originally gave their name to the area of Bonny Downs in East Ham. However, by the 1890s it was far from ‘bonny’ and well known as a deprived and dangerous place. When a pastor called Charles Howe visited, he was outraged to find 60 children running around with no shoes in the area that’s now Flanders Playing Field.
Hearing heart-breaking stories of poverty and struck by a strong community spirit, he resolved to change things – sourcing clothes for the barefoot children, teaching their parents to read and write, and organising free family holidays. His great work later became the inspiration for Bonny Downs Community Association, and our charity was born in 1998.
Dave Mann, Chairman of Bonny Downs Community Association, says:
“Over the past year, the pandemic has brought out the same fantastic community spirit in Newham. Tragically, it has also underlined that some of challenges of 100 years ago still exist today – and it’s made them even worse. In the eight years we’ve been running our food bank at Bonny Downs, we’ve never seen such demand for food and, more than a year after the pandemic began, we are still supporting families who have no money for fuel and clothes.”
That’s why we decided to hold our Bonny Downs Barefoot Challenge to help families get back on their feet after the pandemic. On Wednesday 9 June and Saturday 12 June, more than 80 adults and children came together to walk barefoot and Flanders Field and fundraise, with every pound raised going to our food bank and project supporting local families on low incomes.
We had children in their 0’s and adults in their 80’s take part. We had humans and their pet dogs. We had people running, and people walking with sticks and frames. We had volunteers from our food bank and children from our after school club. We had our MP Stephen Timms and the local newspaper join us too.
Meet our modern day hero Mentesnot!
But the real hero of our event was Mentesnot Mengesha. Mentesnot fled Ethiopia as a refugee during the civil war 30 years ago and settled and built a successful life in Newham. His first job was as a Refugee Development Worker for Newham charity The Renewal Programme and he is currently a part-time lecturer in Teachers Education at New City College, Hackney.
Recently, Mentesnot witnessed a young black boy walking with his father in shoes that were utterly worn-out and falling apart, near a dentist’s surgery in Plaistow. He was shocked and upset to see such a visible sign of poverty on the streets of one of the world’s richest life cities. As the pandemic has continued to highlight the inequalities and challenges that many people in Newham continue to face today, Mentesnot felt challenged to do something.
As Dave says: “Mentesnot’s story is an inspiration, showing how someone in the most difficult of circumstances can build a successful life in Newham with a positive attitude and the right support. This is the same hope we share for all of the families we have been partnering with through the pandemic and we are honoured that Mentesnot has chosen to walk 100 miles barefoot to support them!”
Mentesnot has volunteered to walk an amazing 100 miles barefoot to raise funds for Bonny Downs in solidarity with all those in Newham today who cannot afford the shoes, clothes, food, and other basic essentials they need to fulfil their true potential. He started his 100-mile journey with us at our Barefoot Challenge on 12 June and will continue to walk barefoot in Newham parks and streets this summer. If you would like to support him, you can donate to his fundraiser here!
Mentesnot says: “Thirty years ago, I was lucky to escape civil war in Ethiopia and I feel just as fortunate to have found a warm welcome in Newham. Yet, over the years, I have felt the disparity between the haves and have-nots in our borough is getting worse. The scene of a boy walking to school with his shoes falling apart should be consigned to Victorian times and not something we see today.
“I have a vision for the future that no child will be walking our streets in a visible manifestation of poverty. And I believe that, by working together, every one of us can make that vision a reality by dreaming big while taking our own small steps to make a difference.
Read our interview with Mentesnot here!
Cover photo by Sylvie Belbouab