As Kevin Bradley walks through Sheffield’s St Wilfrid’s Centre, everyone wants to stop and speak to him.
It is his birthday and he has a no end of well-wishers – and he is also retiring after 25 years as the charity’s manager.
One woman calls the centre a ‘home from a home and a sanctuary.’
A man says he came to the centre after his wife died and he had tried to take his own life. When he got to the centre, he sat in silence until Kevin convinced him to play a game of snooker with him. Kevin, he says, ‘has been wonderful.’
Such stories are common at St Wilfrid’s, which Kevin has helped to grow into the institution it is today over more than two decades.
The centre is an unassuming building on Queen’s Road – but inside its red brick walls is a hub of activity.
Set up in 1991 to support the homeless, vulnerable and socially excluded, the facility has grown from somewhere serving a cup of tea and a sandwich to a place offering security and progression.
At aged 39, Kevin was made redundant from his job as a sales director and he was at a loose end. St Wilfrid’s, the former parish church in Heeley, was derelict and he heard that a nun, Sister Evelyn Warnock, was opening it as a day centre for vulnerable adults.
The building had been left to rot after it was bombed in the Second World War. Kevin volunteered to help out for two weeks while he had some spare time – and never left.
He said: “I meant to help out for a couple of weeks until I found work. At that time we were only getting about three people through the door in a day – now we get about 80. It’s a very special place and it has grown into a community.”
Kevin has earned the nickname the ‘eternal beggar’. He is a driving force, helping fundraise the £400,000 a year the centre needs to run – and much more.
He admits it has been ‘hard work’ but is incredibly grateful to the people of Sheffield, and indeed worldwide, who have helped him make a success of the centre.
He said: “I’m always on at people, asking for this and that but whatever we need does seem to appear. In the early days I’d think, ‘we could do with a new freezer,’ and lo and behold there’d be a knock on the door.
“I’ll have been worrying about an electricity bill and then I’ll open an envelope with a donation for that exact amount. Some of the tales I could tell people, you would not believe them. They would think I was crackers. It has been like a fairytale.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary tale is that of the Secret Millionaire.
Interior designer Simrin Choudhrie gave £100,000 to St Wilfrid’s after she visited ‘undercover’ in 2010 as part of the hit TV show Secret Millionaire.
She even named her son Kabir Bhanu Wilfrid Choudhrie after she ‘fell in love’ with the place.
The money has gone towards a residential unit, called Home St Wilfrid’s, which will open later this year.
Clients will live in the unit for up to two years while attending attend classes and workshops at the day centre to set them up for employment and independent living.
Kevin said: “The residential is a dream come true. I’ve seen it materialise in front of my eyes. It is my legacy to St Wilfrid’s.
“The city of Sheffield is so generous and people have been good to us. When you think about society you hear about all these dreadful things. If you want to find good news it’s here. It restores my faith in society. We’ve had people that are homeless coming in and now they’re got their own jobs and houses and cars.
“The little children who have raised a small amount deserve as much credit as the big boys who have given thousands. It is all relative.”
The residential facility may be Kevin’s pride and joy but he says his greatest achievement while at St Wilfrid’s is changing lives for the better.
He said: “Some of the people that walk through these doors, I’m not fit to lick their boots because of some of the things they have been through. We have a duty to help those less fortunate and that’s what I wanted to do.
“I sometimes get thank you letters from people and I didn’t think I really did anything but perhaps I just listened. The people that come here, they might have a disability and look a bit different but we treat everyone the same and give them a sense of home.
“All the diamonds and jewels in the world can’t buy that. And that is my greatest achievement.”
He said he has had some ‘incredible’ experiences while at St Wilfrid’s.
Kevin said: “When I think back to my childhood, I’m just a northern lad from a council house. But I’ve met the Queen and Pele and when the Pope came to England I was invited to Westminster. It’s just been incredible.”
Josie Brooks, from national homeless charity Crisis, will take over from Kevin in July.
But although Kevin is retiring, he won’t be slowing down.
He said: “I’m going to write books, children’s books first using my grandchildren as guinea pigs – and then who knows?
I’m also going to spend time with my poor wife, who is very patient. For years, there have been three people in our relationship; both of us and St Wilfrid’s.
“The centre has made my life richer. I will be sad to leave. It has been my life and I will miss it.”