Despite experiencing a demanding few months making blankets, Keare Pearce-Downey cracks a friendly smile on the Zoom call. The 34-year-old sits beside her cat, Ivy, in the same living room where she creates and keeps the blankets before they are distributed to those in need.
Born and bred in Deptford’s Pepys Estate, Pearce-Downey grew up with the struggles of poverty in Lewisham but has since managed to help more than 1000 people.
“[A]s a family we used to go what was then called totting [searching through rubbish to find saleable or reusable items],” Pearce-Downey said about her childhood.
Pearce-Downey found that there was a lack of local pastimes when she was growing up, due to financial limitations. She said: “There wasn’t really much to do as kids.
“But at the same time, because there wasn’t much to do, there wasn’t that many activities, and when there was, it was as quick as they were started they were shut because of cut backs.”
About three decades later, homelessness within Lewisham is an issue which Pearce-Downey is determined to tackle.
“There are certain people who have always been on the streets since I was a kid and I’m very much one of these people that if I can help in any way, then I will,” said Pearce-Downey.
Since launching an initiative which provides blankets to homeless people within the borough, Pearce-Downey has been supporting her local community.
Giving back to the community
The initiative, known as the Lewisham Crisp Packet Project, is made up of five volunteers who use crisp packets to create foil blankets, providing warmth for those in need.
Pearce-Downey, who is a single full-time mum, started the project in November 2020, after gaining inspiration from the Hastings-based Crisp Packet Project.
The effect of the pandemic has made the last year a difficult period for her young family. She said: “[W]ith having three children with special needs it’s been a challenge, juggling routine changes . . .”
But despite facing these difficulties, Pearce-Downey has managed to deliver the project, which has aided local residents.
She said: “This project is something that’s about giving back as well as helping people and because I have always lived in Lewisham; through the years you see that you can make a difference.
Being raised in a challenging environment meant that Pearce-Downey was already aware of the borough’s social issues. She said: “Where I grew up [in Deptford] it was what we would call quite rough growing up; it was a very troublesome area.
“So when you are very young, and you see people that are really struggling to make ends meet and they are on the streets or they suffer from addiction, you become numb to it. So it becomes your normal.”
Rising above challenges
Growing up, Pearce-Downey also struggled with dyslexia, whilst she was a pupil at Sydenham School. She said: “[B]ack then many years ago it [dyslexia] wasn’t really known as it is today . . .”
The lack of dyslexia awareness created an unsuitable academic environment. She said: “[N]ot having the help I needed to achieve my grades back then, again, due to [there was] not enough knowledge and funding like now [meant that] I stopped going to school when I was in year 9 and would only attend as and when.”
But despite facing challenges, her background, compelled her to value everything she had.
Pearce-Downey said: “My family, more so on my father’s side were brought up Romani gypsy and they were a big family. They didn’t have a lot, there was 15 living in a four-bedroom house . . .”
Even though her extended family is big, Pearce-Downey grew up in smaller household, where she was taught to value all that she had: “I’m my mum’s only child and my dad’s youngest. My house was just me and my parents until they divorced . . .
“Growing up, it was instilled in me then because of my parents, that you need to appreciate things in life and not take things for granted.”
Despite seeing the realities of homelessness and having a modest upbringing, Pearce-Downey affirms that her project is not only about supporting people in need. She said: “We are standing smack bang in the middle of the umbrella, where we have got a homeless crisis on one hand and we have got a recycling project on the other.
“We are in the middle and we are combining these two things together and that’s how our project works. It’s not just about helping people, it’s also about helping the planet, through reducing single- use plastics.”
Helping the planet
Single-use plastics are products that are meant to be thrown away after use, such as crisp packets. The initiative uses the packets to make their blankets, in order to reuse the material. This prevents local wildlife from being at risk of consuming the packets, which is a widespread issue, according to Greenpeace.
Using the crisp packets as the material for the blankets is not only environmentally friendly but also provides a sense of warmth and comfort. Pearce-Downey said: “Not only are they lightweight, inside they have a foil lining [from the crisp packets] which is perfect to reflect body heat and act as an insulator as if you [were] running a marathon. They [athletes] have got the foil blankets that go round them at the end of the finish line. It works in the same principle.”
Pearce-Downey’s ability to create the blankets was fostered by the values she was brought up with. She said: “It’s always been instilled in me from a very young age that you can have all the qualifications in the world but sometimes the job opportunities are never there or it’s very difficult to get there.
“So in order for you to try and get by and make ends meet you need to have a skill, whether that is hairdressing, whether it is writing so you can create your own books, or making things.”
Using creativity to make a difference
The creative skills have served as a lifeline to maintaining work and has ultimately driven the progress of the initiative.
Pearce-Downey said: “I’ve done many things from corporate positions [receptionist and later a PA] and I was also a community care worker.
“I did palliative care for my father. So I’ve covered a broad spectrum of employment over the years, but the one thing I always go back to is my craft skills.
She added: “With the project, I’m just thankful that me being a very crafty and creative person is able to help others.”
The hand-made blankets are believed to be essential to the welfare of those living on the streets, who often face severe conditions.
Pearce-Downey said: “They are survival items because if somebody doesn’t have a blanket or if somebody does have a blanket but it’s soaking wet, that’s causing them to potentially become ill. [That is] because they’re on the streets in the plummeting temperature of an evening.”
The process of making the blankets is a rewarding experience. Pearce-Downey said: “Even though sometimes it can be quite tiring, I always get a sense of achievement and it just gives me a really good feeling that I know I’m making a difference.”
Pearce-Downey’s relatives have encouraged the Lewisham project, by expressing their pride in the actions she has taken. She said: “[T]hey have been and continue to support me and all my decisions I chose and say they are very proud.”
The Lewisham Crisp Packet Project is currently raising funds to help them get a work space. If you would like to make a donation, please visit: https://gofund.me/f0560665