We have an extraordinary group of volunteers working in a myriad of ways to support the St John’s community, streets, trees and bees. We aim to tackle the tough stuff quietly and get involved in fun times with a bit more fanfare. It ebbs and flows but there are about fifteen of us in the committee right now, all with our own reasons for joining.  A recent Forbes article lays out all the reasons why volunteering – particularly for your local community – can reap benefits for everything from your heart health to your career!

We thought it would be interesting to share with you the reasons why our outgoing Chairperson, Litsa Breingan and hugely supportive husband Gordon, who was the secretary for so many years, chose to volunteer.  And introduce you to the new chair too, Paul Middleton, whose lovely wife Alex is Chair of Friends of Friendly Gardens and part of the Greening team of St John’s Society.  All, along with the amazing current and past Committee Members, have already done so much to help improve the quality of life in the St John’s neighbourhood. 

Before you dive in, a reminder that our merry gang of volunteers is always looking to hear from you, the St John’s community, about the sort of help you need to get something done or changed in the area. Please do get in touch Chair@st-johns-soc.org

“In the beginning…”

Litsa and Gordon helped to form and were founding members of the St John’s Society in 1997 when Sarah Pennell and Litsa, new mums in the area, discovered that Brookmill park was to lose its pond and many trees. Speaking with environmentalists they found out that the pond was an important stopping off place for birds travelling across this part of the UK and an important part of London’s ecosystem. In addition, many of the trees had been planted in memory of those who lost their lives in the 1957 train crash at St John’s. The Breingans and the Pennells (Ray being the first Chair of St John’s Society) took their fight to the council and beyond and won! It was perhaps the most defining victory for the St John’s area by the Society to date, but it was the first of many. Now the area had a voice!

Speaking to Litsa as she was choosing to handover the baton of leadership to Paul in February 2024, she explained how she feels after five years at the helm, it is time to pour her energy into her other great passion, music.

Litsa was the music teacher at Ashmead Primary School (2000-2012) and other local Lewisham schools and continues to teach many students privately, as well as directing, accompanying and performing with other musical groups. Their daughter, Lia, inherited these amazing musical skills as a harpist and singer. One of Litsa’s projects was restoring an extraordinary archive of harp music, that Lia had been bequeathed. And now, with UK Harp Association, she is rescuing harp music for use by harpists worldwide. Litsa was recently voted in as Vice-Chair of Bromley Festival

Litsa and Bert Page (organist at St John’s Church) have just raised over £60,000 funding from the National Lottery after years of trying to raise awareness and funds for restoration of the historic Binn’s organ in St John’s church.

Litsa and Gordon achieved many things over their time in leadership but some they were particularly proud of were the naming, funding and management of St John’s Garden behind the church – that took ten years to achieve! Many of the murals that have popped up across the area came from the St John’s Society efforts, really putting us on the map. The website, noticeboards and social media have become a really useful source of information as well as a place where we explain everything we do through the minutes of our meetings. And then there were the street trees, litter picking, the fight vs fly tippers, formalising the SJS Planning Group, encouraging the Greening Conversations, liaising and supporting local resident and park groups, including Kath’s Place and singing, of course, along the Christmas Advent Window Trail and so much more.

“Looking to the future…”

Paul moved to St Johns in 2020. He and his wife Alex were planning a family and looking for a location with good transport links, where the housing was relatively affordable. We heard great things about  St Johns in general, especially the amazing community vibe.  The added bonus was the Brookmill Pub at the bottom and the Talbot at the top!!

Paul became chair in February 2024 and his proudest St John’s moments so far?

  • Being nominated as Chair, so that I have an opportunity to impact real change.  I consider it an honour to be able to work with the community that I live in and I will do all I can whilst in this position.
  • The installation of the Thornville Rain Garden and the amazing work we are doing with the Council on other exciting schemes which will support the improvement of so many areas which includes transport, waste, nature, trees, flood management and conservation.
  • The opportunity to incubate the Brookmill Road Local Nature Reserve and support its development to become an independent friends group.

As chair, Paul is aiming to increase collaboration across the SJ’s community, with other community groups, the council and all other stakeholders that can impact SJ’s positively. From the start, greening and biodiversity has been a big priority for him and in addition to that the team are focused on; planning, conservation, waste, fly tipping, traffic, transport, arts and culture.

“Having given to charities passively over the years I realised there was need in our local community and it was time to get my hands dirty and roll my sleeves up,” Paul says. “Getting to be a part of activities and projects that can really empower and improve a community right now and for the future is what drives me. We can achieve so much more if we all work together.

I firmly believe that through openness, collaboration and communication we can accomplish so much more in life and that can have such a healthy and positive impact on all that live both with and near us. Plus I have a massive love of nature, plants and our environment  – as our son does now too – and there are just so many opportunities locally to get involved with.”

Interested in volunteering right now?

Come and meet us at one of the Green Conversations upcoming and hear in more detail about nature projects that need support. But the easiest way to get fit, get to know your neighbours and get that volunteer good feels is to join one of our monthly litter picks that run across the summer. Follow our Instagram or Facebook to make sure you get a heads up of upcoming events.

All are welcome and you could spend as little or as much time as you would like.


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