ALMERE, Netherlands — Hans Blanken first visited the drop-in centre in his neighbourhood because he didn’t want to be rude. He had avoided Inloophuis de Ruimte because he didn’t understand what it was, and there were always people loitering outside.
But a friend took him to dinner at the centre as a thank you for help with a computer problem, and he went along, not wanting to hurt her feelings. Once inside he realized it was nothing like he had feared.
Ten years later he still visits the drop-in centre, and now organizes the Thursday evening meal. “It’s a place where I feel very comfortable,” he says. “This place has given me life.”
The Dutch Mennonite church started the centre 25 years ago as what they call a “second living room” in the community of Almere, just outside Amsterdam. They offer coffee and tea for a small charge, an evening meal on Thursdays as well as prayer groups and Taize services. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) provides some financial support.
The drop-in allows people lacking friendship, family or community a chance to talk with others and feel connected. “When you come here to drink coffee it’s not to drink coffee, it’s to connect again with the people,” says Marjan Kip, pastor and coordinator at the centre. “It’s about the relationships; you build on the relationships through the bad times and the good times.”
Those relationships have been important for Blanken, who had few community connections when he moved back to the Netherlands after 30 years in the United States. His health kept him from working and he found that others were busy with their own work or family.
“I thought that I would be very unhappy here,” he says, “I came to Almere and I was already thinking how can I get away from here? And now I don’t want to leave anymore.”
Photo by Nina Linton.
He’s learned more about the neighbourhood, made friends and participates in local politics. “I don’t think I would have the energy to do that if I hadn’t found a group like this.”
Friendships formed at the drop-in are also important to Judith Israels, the first person to visit the centre after she moved to Almere from Amsterdam. She actually walked in the day before the centre opened—though it was only a meeting for organizers they welcomed her.
Twenty-five years later that same sense of welcome keeps her coming back. “It cheers you up and you go back home with a good feeling,” she says. Having a regular place to go in the mornings gave her a sense of purpose, and meeting people in her neighbourhood made her feel at home.
“It’s nice if you meet [someone from the drop-in] in another street,” Israels says “the place becomes alive if you know people in your own neighbourhood.”
Emily Loewen is a writer for MCC Canada.