Soup, chat and competing community initiatives, including Susan Dickerson's plan to set up grief recovery sessions

Colchester Soup is one of a number of groups in which people listen to pitches from local community initiatives and pick the best one, writes Andy Hillier

Susan Dickerson pitched an initiative to set up grief recovery sessions
Susan Dickerson pitched an initiative to set up grief recovery sessions

It's a wet Friday evening and about 50 people of all ages are gathered in a converted former church in the centre of Colchester, Essex.

At a time of the week when many people head to the bars and restaurants or stay at home glued to their TVs, this group is engaged in a more community-spirited activity. They are here to chat, listen to presentations from local community initiatives and eat soup.

Colchester Soup started last year and is part of a growing international community phenomenon. The Soup concept started five years ago in the US city of Detroit, the former manufacturing powerhouse in Michigan that famously went bust, to support the beleaguered local arts community. Since then, the concept has spread across the US and to some parts of Europe, Asia and Australia.

There are currently 10 Soups listed in the UK on the official Sunday Soup website and more are in development. In Colchester, a funeral director from Peterborough has driven for more than three hours to see the concept in action with a view to setting up a group there.

The concept is simple: people pay about £5 to attend, receive soup and a roll, and listen to about three pitches from local initiatives. The audience then votes for their favourite project by placing tokens in a jar. The initiative that gets the most votes wins the money paid on the door.

The sums involved are relatively small – the prize money on offer in Colchester is less than £300 – but the events are about more than just money. They bring different parts of the community together to help raise awareness of good local initiatives that don't enjoy a high profile.

In Colchester, the Soup has been organised by a volunteer, Karen Taylor, manager of a local architectural practice, mainly with the help of friends and family. She read about the success of Detroit Soup and wanted to set up something similar. "I sat back, hoping that someone in the community might do it here – but nobody did," she says. "I then found out that Southend had set up its own Soup, so I went there. The room was so positive that I felt I had to do it. I thought 'what is there to lose?'"

In Colchester, first on the stage is a group of local art and design students seeking funds to pay for a stand at an influential design show. The money, we're told, could help kick-start the careers of 13 students who hope to attend.

Next to pitch is the founder of Colchester Wildcats. The Wildcats play a mixed-sex team sport called korfball that has similarities to netball and basketball. The club is on the verge of folding after failing to attract enough members, and its founder, Ben Hall, wants to raise the money to run a taster session and pay for publicity.

The third and final pitch comes from Susan Dickerson, who wants to set up grief recovery sessions to help people who have experienced loss, ranging from the death of a beloved pet to the loss of a close relation.

All three have five minutes to make their case before a bell rings and they then have to answer questions from the floor. After the pitches the soup is served, and those attending are encouraged to mingle, make contacts and discuss what they've heard. Then they vote for their favourite idea.

In Colchester, the grief recovery idea secures the most votes and wins the money. Dickerson is delighted. "It feels like a vote of confidence and acceptance for an idea from the community," she says."

The fourth Colchester Soup is already planned for July at the local branch of the homelessness charity Emmaus. Taylor hopes it will become an established part of community life. "We have so many people doing good stuff that isn't necessarily funded," she says. "If we give them a chance to talk about themselves, more people will know what others are doing locally."

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