Her front room is piled high with tins and boxes of food, while the fridges and freezers in the kitchen are jammed full too. In fact, every spare inch of Michelle Dornelly’s London flat is taken up with the donations she spends her life distributing to people in extreme need. And although it’s already approaching midnight and her back is aching, the mum-of-four’s day isn’t quite done.
While most of us are climbing into bed, big-hearted Michelle is about to start responding to emails from funders, volunteers and people desperate for help.
At a time of great uncertainty and fear, Michelle, 52, has become a beacon of hope for families in her area struggling to cope with spiralling bills.
She set up the Hackney Community Food Hub in April 2020 after hearing about neighbours going hungry.
Michelle’s remarkable dedication to others will see her being presented with the TSB Community Hero award at the star-studded Daily Mirror Pride of Britain awards this week. The accolade recognises a lifetime of community work, years spent acting and advocating on behalf of vulnerable people.
While most people might offer sympathy or concern, Michelle took direct action, founding a volunteer-led service that has grown to feed thousands of people every week – and delivered meals to 100,000 so far. Her passion and compassion come from a deep-seated sense of community and a real understanding of how people are being forced to live.
A single mum to a daughter, Renisha, 23, and three sons – Remel, 30, who lives with a sickle cell condition, Revaugh, 27, and Reon, 14, who is on the autistic spectrum – she gets by on Universal Credit and is struggling with bedroom tax charges. Money is tight – she’s fallen into arrears on her flat – and she doesn’t get paid for what’s become a full-time job.
“This is my life,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m experiencing the same situation everyone else is experiencing.
“So I know what people are going through, we’re all in the same boat.
“Everyone is struggling and there are plenty who have it worse than me. When I saw the way things were going I couldn’t sit there and do nothing.”
This isn’t the first time Michelle has stepped up as a Good Samaritan, to give strangers the chance of a better life and channel her frustration at the poverty she witnessed for a better purpose.
In 2009, worried about the influence of gang culture and a lack of facilities for young people, she set up another successful community group, Children With Voices.
The organisation provides after-school and holiday clubs, along with mentoring for young people, to combat obesity, hunger and violence among five to 16-year-olds.
She started off funding it with her own benefits money and asking local shopkeepers to donate provisions.
She says, “This is an area where people have a lot to offer, but we all need help to achieve that potential. And when my boys were growing I couldn’t see that, so I had to do something.”
According to a 2021 Policy Exchange report, Hackney has one of the highest rates of knife crime in London, while a 2019 study by Loughborough University found almost half of children in the area were living in poverty, one of the worst rates in the UK.
But thanks to Michelle, fewer families are going to bed hungry.
She has used social media and word of mouth to recruit a team of 100 helpers to serve hot meals at three bases around the borough, collect food waste from businesses, and deliver food hampers.
It means Michelle has become a point of contact 24/7 for those who don’t know where else to turn, helping everyone from the isolated elderly to parents and workers whose wages don’t provide enough for them to make ends meet. And with the cold weather coming and inflation and prices rising, demand is through the roof.
“Things are getting really bad. We’re all dreading winter,” Michelle says sadly. “Even the volunteers are having their electric going off and they can’t afford to top it up. Last year it was about heating or eating, this year there will be elderly people found dead, I know that.
“People had some support through furlough and that’s gone. The cost of everything is going up – it’s impossible.
“People are terrified about their bills and have no way of covering their costs.
“We’re not like a food bank, where people are limited about when they can come or need a referral. We’re open to whoever needs us. And it’s not just about food, it’s about community – letting people know that there are people out there who can help, who care.
“There’s deprivation everywhere. And I wish that people would just open their eyes and be a little bit more compassionate.”
And when she isn’t caring for her family or others, Michelle is on a mission – to find a long-term base for the project in one of the many empty buildings in Hackney.
“It’s about having that security,” she says. “Somewhere we can cook and store food – at the moment we have to move everything around all the time. But we’ll get there. The need is there, so we’ll get there.”
There’s no doubt, given her drive and dedication, that she will. As she says, “I eat, breathe and sleep this. But that’s what community means, isn’t it?”
Watch the Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Awards with TSB on Thursday at 8pm on ITV
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