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Sheringham ‘home from home’ celebrates 40 years of supporting needy children and families

PUBLISHED: 16:57 12 June 2018 | UPDATED: 19:48 12 June 2018

Aid worker Evelyn Smith, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the centre she founded for needy families
Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Aid worker Evelyn Smith, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the centre she founded for needy families Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Archant

When Evelyn Smith founded the Canaan Christian Centre at Sheringham in 1978, she realised her childhood dream of devoting her life to supporting needy children and families. Now celebrating the centre’s 40th anniversary, Miss Smith spoke to KAREN BETHELL about her past achievements and her hopes for the future.

Children and staff from a Hungarian orphanage visiting Canaan in Sheringham in 2007
Photo: COLIN FINCHChildren and staff from a Hungarian orphanage visiting Canaan in Sheringham in 2007 Photo: COLIN FINCH

Born in India to an army officer father, Miss Smith returned to the UK to live in Harrogate, Yorkshire, after Indian independence in 1947.

Growing up with parents who had an “open house” policy, she was used to sharing her home with troubled and disadvantaged youngsters and says her future calling was shaped by her childhood.

Miss Smith with a mother and children fleeing domestic violence in the 1980s
Photo: submittedMiss Smith with a mother and children fleeing domestic violence in the 1980s Photo: submitted

“My mother was brought up in an orphanage in India and that definitely influenced me, but we always had waifs and strays living with us, so I suppose it seemed natural for me to do the same,” she explained.

Aged 15, she ran an after-school club for the children’s charity NCH and, after leaving school, spent two years studying at bible college in London before working as a secretary and children’s missionary for a Yorkshire-based evangelist.

Canaan Christian Centre founder Evelyn Smith with Hungarian musicians, who travelled to north Norfolk in 2013 to raise money for Hungarian orphans
Photo: KAREN BETHELLCanaan Christian Centre founder Evelyn Smith with Hungarian musicians, who travelled to north Norfolk in 2013 to raise money for Hungarian orphans Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Sent to Norfolk aged 27 by the Fellowship for Evangelising Britain’s Villages, her next job saw her living in a tiny cottage at Little Barningham, where facilities were limited.

“The loo was down the garden, there was no drainage and no bathroom, but I had been prepared and a sense of humour was a great gift that God has blessed me with,” she remembered.

Evelyn Smith with youngsters from a Hungarian orphanage
Photo: COLIN FINCHEvelyn Smith with youngsters from a Hungarian orphanage Photo: COLIN FINCH

Charged with running youth clubs at rural north Norfolk villages stretching from Aylsham to Thornage, Miss Smith then moved to a former rectory at Baconsthorpe, where she met 15-year-old June Coghlan, who was to become her biggest supporter.

June’s mother had died of cancer and when her father – a former Prisoner of War – also died, Miss Smith took the youngster under her wing and became her legal guardian.

Evelyn Smith talking to teenager Ferenc Bogdan, who visited Canaan in 2007 with staff and youngsters from a Hungarian orphanage
Copy:Tracey GrayEvelyn Smith talking to teenager Ferenc Bogdan, who visited Canaan in 2007 with staff and youngsters from a Hungarian orphanage Copy:Tracey Gray

The pair went on to work together supporting hundreds of needy youngsters and their families and when a Christian doctor acquaintance offered to lend Miss Smith the money to buy her four-bedroom Sheringham holiday home in 1978 and an aunt offered to provide the £500 deposit, they saw an opportunity to expand their work and opened the Canaan Christian Centre, in Holt Road.

Paying off the loan over the following five years by offering bed and breakfast to holidaymakers, Miss Smith began taking in women and children fleeing domestic violence and, supported by a team of volunteers, set up a Saturday morning children’s club, a Christian club for teenagers and a lunch club for around 50 elderly people from all over the area.

Evelyn Smith with a Canaan children's club member in 2006. 
Photo: KAREN BETHELLEvelyn Smith with a Canaan children's club member in 2006. Photo: KAREN BETHELL

With Canaan expanded to accomodate more people, she also offered seaside holidays to low income families and, in 1996, set off on a road trip to take Christmas presents donated by local people to children in a Hungarian orphanage.

Canaan volunteers went on to make regular trips to Hungary and, with the help of Hungarian aid worker Kornel Szilagyi, Miss Smith began inviting Hungarian youngsters to Canaan for holidays, which were paid for with cash raised by supporters.

Evelyn Smith with lifelong supporter June Coghlan and some of the lots donated by local people for an auction they held in 2006 to raise cash for some of the youngsters supported by Canaan 
Photo: KAREN BETHELLEvelyn Smith with lifelong supporter June Coghlan and some of the lots donated by local people for an auction they held in 2006 to raise cash for some of the youngsters supported by Canaan Photo: KAREN BETHELL

In 2007, she opened a sister centre, Kanaan Haz, in the west of the country.

Catering for up to 40 people, the home, which is now funded by the Hungarian government, is still supported by Canaan, which has also helped orphans and families in Ukraine, Nigeria and Brazil.

Now 74, Miss Smith, who lives at Cromer, has recently stepped back from the day to day running of Canaan, but still runs the centre’s children’s club and is part of the ministry team at Cromer Parish Church.

“It feels incredible to think that we have been doing this for 40 years,” she said. “But I am still working and still rejoicing in it and I am very proud of what we have achieved - I think we have given people hope and, with hope, you can cope with anything.”

After offering temporary housing for homeless people for two years, Canaan, which is run by around 40 volunteers, is now being used to provide self-catering holidays for disadvantaged families, with Miss Smith also working with London church leaders to look into the possibility of offering breaks to families affected by the Grenfell tragedy.

“Norfolk is such a wonderful county and my plan is to raise money so that people from places like London can come somewhere where they can unwind and walk down the street without having to look over their shoulder,” she said.

Friends and supporters are welcome to join Canaan in celebrating its 40th anniversary on Saturday at 3pm. Evangelist Doug Barnett will be speaking, with music provided by pianist Marilyn Baker.

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