Surrounded by a supportive co-op team in a positive atmosphere, 29-year-old Steph found purpose and peace of mind during the Covid-19 pandemic, and beyond…
When Stephanie Rutherford moved to Prestwich, just north of Manchester, in her late 20s, she was looking for a sense of community. She found a job in a local café and started shopping at Village Greens – a nearby organic food store co-op.
“Everyone in there was really friendly and chatty and told me about the area. And there were lots of notices in the window about things going on locally. So it felt like a community,” she recalls.
“From working just across the road from Village Greens, I realised how helpful the co-op was. When I was on my own in the café, I could call up and order stock – and they’d bring it over. And they’d take in our delivery from Suma Wholefoods, so we didn’t have to get up at 5am. Then they’d bring it over to us in a trolley.”
Also an actor who tours for months at a time, Stephanie’s work dried up when the first Covid-19 lockdown came in to force. There was no theatre and the café closed.
“By that time, I knew everyone in Village Greens on first name terms because they were all so friendly. I knew they were getting really busy, so I asked if they needed any volunteers.
“I’ve had struggles with my mental health, so as much as it was to help out the store, it was also knowing that I would struggle living by myself at that time as well.”
Stephanie began work, as a paid member of staff, eight hours a week. “There was a flour shortage and we found a supplier who delivered it in 25kg bags,” she recalls.
“My job for a month was decanting flour into 1kg bags. I had it in my hair and fingernails. I had a layer of flour on me at all times. I was well happy and I thought, ‘This is one of the most joyous working experiences I’ve ever had.’”
Her reasons: “I was surrounded by a great energy in the store. It comes from the things we sell and the ethics behind it. It comes from the store manager and the co-op board caring about the shop – and that feeds down to the staff. I love coming to work. I’ve never had a day where I don’t love coming to work.
“We’re here for the customers too and we helped keep their spirits up during the lockdowns, because coming to the shop was their only time out. Whether it was just to talk about events in their lives or something they were worried about, we were there as an ear as well.
“It felt like more than just decanting flour. There was a buzz. There’s always a positive energy in here. That feeling continues, it’s not just the pandemic. It still helps now, if I’m feeling low or whatever. The world’s a complex place and some days you don’t feel great.
“I’ve had a long struggle with my mental health. And every day I go into work, I come out feeling better, which I know is incredibly rare, knowing you’ve got a support network around you.”
Stephanie joined the co-op on becoming a member of staff. Although her knowledge of co-ops was pretty limited, she appreciated the opportunity to have her voice heard. “It made sense to become a member because you’re invested in the place. I can go to the AGMs and have my say. But whether I was co-op member or not, as a member of staff, I’d feel valued anyway.”
Another benefit for Stephanie’s wellbeing has been the flexibility to work at Village Greens co-op around her acting commitments. It gives her peace of mind knowing she always has work to come back once a theatre tour is over.
“It’s really nice to work in a place where they get what you do. I have the complete support of the whole team, swapping shifts for auditions and everyone rallying to help. When I ask for a couple of months off, the first thing they say is, ‘Congratulations! What’s the job?’ And that’s something I didn’t think existed.
For Stephanie, being part of Village Greens has given her the community she was seeking when she moved into the area. As well as a sense of purpose, empowerment and acceptance.
“It feels like I’m making a difference, doing something plausible and knowing that we can change things together. Being part of a co-op like this, you feel empowered to be yourself and know that yourself is enough. You can live the life you want to live and be supported within that.”