Most people who have walked through Croydon town centre, or South Norwood, have seen Sarah Chelsom. You hear her before you see her; she can be spotted on a bejewelled, pink pimped-out mobility scooter from which she blasts reggae tunes. Handing out tents, Greggs sausage rolls and offering an ear and smile to those who need it most, she is something of a Croydon legend.
Chelsom refused to disclose her age, but the DJ assured Eastlondonlines that she is “twenty-one at heart”. A South Norwood resident for over 40 years, Chelsom raised both of her children in Croydon as a single mother. Despite the future looking “very bleak”, she would not be anywhere else: “I will always stay in South Norwood. Even if I won the lottery I wouldn’t go and buy a posh house somewhere else, I’d stay here”.
Chelsom is a DJ and works at South Norwood Community Kitchen, located in the Socco Cheta community hub on Portland Road. Socco Cheta is run in conjunction with Croydon United Domino Football Club and the building has been owned by the Domino’s since the seventies. With the help of a grant from the council, South Norwood Community Kitchen moved into the space five months ago. Around 40 volunteers work at the kitchen, some of whom were originally guests.
Sitting in the bright and airy community kitchen ‘caff’, signs advertise their ‘pay what you can’ model. Dishes are made with surplus food donated by supermarkets and vegetables from their allotment. A winter squash was being chopped up in the open kitchen as Chelsom spoke to Eastlondonlines.
She said: “My motto is rain falls on everyone. Don’t judge people because you don’t know what they’re going through.” Every Saturday the kitchen provides a three-course meal, free haircuts, and a film screening for children in their cinema to give parents some respite. “We have nurses, doctors and those in full-time education coming to us in desperation because they can’t afford to make ends meet.”
Chelsom also spoke about the kitchen being open to everyone. She said: “We don’t discriminate against anyone. We’re one of the only organisations that give you a hot meal and tell you to sit down and enjoy it. People are desperate for someone to sit down and talk to.”
Chelsom stressed the need for places like South Norwood Community Kitchen: “As I go around Croydon on my mobility scooter it breaks my heart because more and more people are on the streets and the situation this winter will get worse. They’ve put the rents up. Do you pay your rent? Do you pay your bills? Or do you eat? A lot of parents are going without food to feed their children.”
Due to increases in bills and operating costs, Chelsom has had to DJ and host more fundraising events to raise money for the community kitchen. Food donations are down to around a third of what they used to receive. But through her DJing and love of music she finds joy. She said: “Music is healing”. A particularly joyous moment was a recent party at the community kitchen to celebrate a guest getting his UK visa.
On Wednesday afternoons and evenings she takes over First4Radio‘s waves, playing a variety of tracks and hosting live interviews at 9pm. Bob Marley can often be heard on her show (as well as from her mobility scooter) with ‘Natural Mystic’ being one of her favourites. Through her DJ work and radio show she promotes the work of reggae artists.
She said: “I help reggae artists get their voices heard because they’re exploited by the DJs. I come into it by playing their music and blaze around the world. Also, when I concentrate on the music it takes my mind away from the trials and tribulations of today and the pain that I’m in. It helps me and it uplifts me.”
Chelsom’s work can be taxing on her mental health, she said: “I lay awake at night in my bed, thinking about the homeless people who don’t have one. It’s very stressful, it’s hard to shut off when you get home. It’s hard. You’re thinking ‘is that person okay?'”
However, Chelsom tries to stay positive and she is particularly excited for South Norwood Community Kitchen’s Christmas Eve party, which she is obviously DJing. She said: “I’m going to come in before and get loads of decorations up and play lots of Christmas music.”
From the energy in the kitchen’s cafe and Chelsom’s passion for helping others, it is bound to be a Christmas Eve for everyone. She said: “Everyone is going to get a present.”