Staff tips are stolen in church cafe burglary
Safe full of volunteers' cash taken by masked trio
Volunteers at a church-run community cafe, including people with learning difficulties, have been left "very upset" after the property was burgled by thieves who stole staff tips in a "despicable" early-morning raid.
The funds, taken from East Belfast Mission's Refresh Cafe in Skainos Square, had been intended to fund an evening of celebration for hard-working volunteers.
Police are appealing for witnesses after three people, with their faces covered, forced their way into the Newtownards Road premises at around 1.30am yesterday morning, before leaving with a safe containing cash.
A PSNI spokesman said they believed the suspects had made off in the direction of Belvoir Street.
CEO of East Belfast Mission Andrew Irvine said CCTV had captured the suspects, who he believes were wearing balaclavas, during the break-in.
"They entered through our community garden on the Newtownards Road, smashed an external door and went straight to the catering manager's office after completely destroying an internal solid wooden door," he said.
"They wrenched the safe out and left, it was all done in seven minutes. It was a despicable act."
Mr Irvine says that staff who arrived to open up yesterday morning were greeted by a scene of smashed glass, wood and nails.
"Staff and volunteers are very upset," he said.
"There are a lot of volunteers with additional needs and it's not just as easy for them to calm down or to move on when something like this happens.
"Theft is wrong even if it's from a normal, purely commercial business, but when you start taking from a charity working with the vulnerable and the community, is that even worse?"
Despite the heartache the burglary has caused, Mr Irvine says he is "genuinely concerned" for the people who carried it out.
"You would have to be in a pretty bad place in life to go into a church-run building and steal money," he added.
In an effort to ensure that the cafe volunteers did not lose out due to the crime, East Belfast Mission launched a Justgiving page yesterday morning.
In just a few hours, the initiative had surpassed the £200 target.
"It's heart-warming, and I want to thank everyone who has supported us," said Andrew.
UUP Councillor Sonia Copeland said she was "absolutely disgusted" by the burglary.
"This is a community facility and it is deplorable for it to be targeted by thieves," she said.
Police are appealing for anyone with information to contact Strandtown Police Station on 101, quoting reference 163 12/04/2018 or anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.