Beyond Food Parcels - The East Belfast Way
In the first of a series of blogs by staff and guest writers, EBCDA Community Development Director Jonny Currie reflects on some of the creative ways community groups in East Belfast have been responding to need in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Determination, energy, and courage appear spontaneously when we care deeply about something. We take risks that are unimaginable in any other context.” (Margaret Wheatley)
Over the last few years, seven groups in East Belfast were recipients of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. That spirit of voluntary action has been highly evident across East Belfast in responding to the coronavirus. Beginning in early March before the full wave of coordinated COVID-19 support kicked in, community groups in East Belfast hit the ground running providing practical and creative assistance to neighbours in need.
Youth work organisations put together and delivered resource packs, making one-to-one calls, and facilitating group video sessions with young people to ensure no one is isolated.
“We provided 100 Easter eggs to young people that would normally attend our Easter Scheme. We have been doing on average 10 group online sessions a week through our mentoring programme and employability programme.”
Adjusting to community life during a pandemic has given organisations time to listen to people’s stories and get a wider insight into their lives. As a result community groups have been adding personal touches to resilience packs with bars of chocolate, home-made rice crispy buns, face packs, and bunches of flowers.
“It’s been an opportunity to get to hear people's stories who you've been living next to for years. People have just wanted a chat. We’ve ended up stepping-in as home help for some of our older residents.”
Local home-learning support networks have been set-up for families, seeking to bridge the digital divide by photocopying learning sheets or lending tablet devices and laptops. Highly sophisticated operations have also prepared and delivered cooked meals across East Belfast on request.
Text message services or friendly, reassuring phone calls checking in on residents before and then after the delivery of food parcels have led to increased numbers of local volunteers wanting to help out. Churches have maintained contact with their members by moving their services online, and also setting up new telephone befriending services.
Youth organisations have been supporting young people to make a difference in their neighbourhoods.
“One of our young volunteers has been helping an elderly local lady with gardening and dog walking.”
Lockdown has disrupted familiar routines and the comfort that can bring to often-isolated older people. One group decided to step in and provide direct assistance to help in the following way:
“We sourced patterns for crochet for a group of older ladies that have been advised to shield. As they all don’t have internet access we decide to make packs up for them supplying wool and the needles. We have also been sourcing books as I found when calling out to people that they use the charity shops for getting books and with the closure they haven’t being able to get any.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic there were emerging difficulties faced by vulnerable residents in local folds and sheltered housing accommodation. Community groups stepped-in immediately providing food, delivery of medicines, and a listening ear - while at the same time calling on some housing associations to provide a more coordinated response themselves.
Across neighbourhoods in East Belfast, groups have been organising on an area-specific basis - either through video conferencing or holding regular socially distanced partners’ meetings in church halls, community centres and open spaces. This has enabled groups to identify residents falling between the cracks of mainstream statutory support and ensure referrals are made to the appropriate authorities.
East Belfast groups have applied to and delivered programmes supported by: Martin Lewis Coronavirus Fund, CFNI Coronavirus Community Support Fund, Halifax Foundation, Children in Need, as well as local funding programmes from statutory agencies.
Boilers have been serviced. Emergency oil deliveries have been arranged. Community responders have even morphed into furniture removers. Entire homes have been re-arranged to facilitate elderly patients being discharged from hospital. Here’s one example:
“We re-configured an entire house to create space for a hospital bed for a 91 year-old woman after being alerted by a social worker.”
From the beginning East Belfast Coronavirus Community Support has sought to get behind these local responses - not get in their way. Flyers and posters were designed and printed for local groups, as well as networking and signposting support. A steering group of community workers, clergy and elected representatives was quickly established to set up the support helpline and to build relationships with Belfast City Council for future support that was to come in the form of funding for non-perishable food and resilience packs.
As other citywide and Northern Ireland-wide helplines emerged, this local structure was crucial for partnership-working with statutory agencies to ensure the most vulnerable in receipt of shielding letters received the support they needed.
An open network of local responders’ contact details was quickly populated by over 40 groups - keeping in touch by email, telephone and Whatsapp. These groups have taken referrals from the Coronavirus Community Support Helpline for any help needed in their neighbourhoods across Titanic, Ormiston and Lisnasharragh District Electoral Areas. Contact has also been maintained with local responses in neighbouring South Belfast and Lisburn and Castlereagh council districts.
Statistics from East Belfast Coronavirus Community Support only scratch the surface of the volume of voluntary action that has taken place over the last few months. East Belfast is well-placed to respond to community need during the next phase of managing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.