LAST Christmas was a particular low point in a life full of struggles for mother-of-five Gemma.

While most children were tucking in to their Christmas dinners with all the trimmings, Gemma’s young ones were served beans on toast.

Stuck in a physically abusive relationship and struggling to makes end meet, she was at rock bottom and was depressed she couldn’t provide for her children.

Fast forward 12 months, and the smile on Gemma’s face is as big as any other you may see today.

With the help of West Northumberland Food Bank, which has bases in Hexham, Prudhoe and Haltwhistle, the quality of life for her and her children has improved considerably.

Gemma escaped her violent partner and travelled hundreds of miles to live with her father in Tynedale. However, she had to share a bedroom with her three youngest children, aged 10, nine and six.

When she finally moved into a rented property of her own, all she had was a cooker in a shell of a house.

That is when the intervention of volunteers at the food bank transformed her outlook on life because, within three days, people had donated and delivered all the furniture she could need.

She continues to use the service to feed the family – one of 500 households to benefit from the food bank throughout 2018. Of those 494 families, just under half were first time users.

Gemma’s story is an example of how important such a service is to the people of Tynedale.

She said: “I’ve been to rock bottom and I have had a hard life, but it feels like we’re starting over again and changing that. The food bank has been amazing and it’s changed our lives so much. I used to think life wasn’t worth living, but now I love my life and my children are so happy. I’ve noticed such a difference in them since we found the food bank; they’ve gained weight, are doing well at school and their behaviour has improved.”

Another person thankful for the food bank is Bellingham resident Tony Buchanan, who has been using the service for a number of years now. He visits the Hexham unit on Burn Lane Industrial Estate fortnightly, stocking up on food and also seeking valuable financial help from the bank’s trained volunteers.

Tony fell on hard times when chronic migraines and depression forced him to stop working. While he said neurologists and doctors backed up this claim, he was declared ‘fit for work’ by government officials, and, on top of losing all income, he was denied benefits.

He now relies on the food bank to survive, which he accesses by hailing lifts from people travelling from Bellingham to Hexham as he can’t afford the £5.20 bus fare each fortnight.

Tony said: “I couldn’t live without these people. They really are a lifeline. I have worries in my life but I can always eat because of the food bank.

“As I walk in here, it breaks my heart to see young families coming in needing nappies and baby milk for their young children.

“I used to sneak in here, but now I hold my head up with pride because the people here are so amazing. Here, we have a fantastic service and people shouldn’t be ashamed to admit they’re struggling and need help. If people are in that situation, they need to use this fabulous food bank.”

During 2018, West Northumberland Food Bank had a total of 3,000 requests for help, and it helped feed 438 children. The majority of those were under the age of 11.

Its Christmas appeal ended last Friday and, through the generosity of local people, 50 households throughout the district received Christmas hampers.

Volunteers at West Northumberland are such a shining example to the rest of the country that they were recently invited to speak at a United Nations event about human rights and their experience of poverty in the area.

West Northumberland Food Bank is open between 10am and midday on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Burn Lane, Hexham, the Spetchells Centre, in Prudhoe, and Haltwhistle Library.