by Amanda Eleftheriades
The past year has been difficult for most of us, being cut off from friends, family, colleagues and social spaces.
As we faced a crisis of global proportions the most vulnerable people in our communities again became those most at risk.
Unable to walk through the doors of community centres, charities, and churches – common lifelines in difficult times – the pandemic exacerbated the loneliness, anxiety and inequalities that existed.
And while many of us transitioned to Zoom or Teams in a bid to stay connected to our pre-Covid lives, there were many excluded from this digital space, lacking the necessary knowledge or technology.
This required local community organisations to get creative in how they continued to provide support to people struggling with an array of life challenges.
A year on, we checked in with some of these groups to find out how they are coping with the challenges the pandemic brought to their doors.
These are a few of their stories.
John White, Operations Director for local mental health charity, Stepping Stones, said:
“Remote-working works for some of our team, but the very nature of our work means we like to get into the room and see people, so staff had to develop new skills to allow them to do that.
“We have some staff who worked with Childline or other telephone helplines, and we were fortunate as we could draw on their expertise to support those of us who hadn’t worked in this way before.”
Losing the daily buzz of people in the office also had an impact on the team’s energy levels and with a skeleton staff in the office it was more challenging to check on how staff were coping.
John said pay increases, a staff peer support service and inclusion in the early phase of the vaccine rollout have all helped boost staff morale.
Various local and national networks and resources which grew out of last year’s lockdown have also helped.
Organisations Coming Together
Last March Clydesider set up a virtual Community Response Network (CRN) for local community organisations to stay connected while doors were closed.
John praised the initiative saying, “it has been the best network that has come together over the past year, it is really, really good.
“Before I would speak to some of the group, but others I didn’t have any contact with.
“It’s good to catch up with what they’re doing, with everyone being local it’s really helpful.”
In the face of extra bureaucracy, increasing demands on mental health services and the constant change over the past year, John is proud of what his team has achieved.
“Working on the coalface we just get on with it, that’s the same for most of the organisations in the CRN – we just rolled our sleeves up and got on with providing support to the people we work with.
“The public have been supportive, we’ve had people fundraising for us and dropping off things and sending in thank you cards – it means a lot.”
And his tip for coping through these strange times – “keep a sense of perspective and ground yourself when you can, even when it is hard to do, you need to keep practicing it. \
“Sometimes it’s just about recognising that what is happening now isn’t forever.”
Claire Strong is Network Manager for Neighbourhood Networks charity.
It supports people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities or mental health problems to live independent lives connected with their communities.
Their biggest challenges was keeping the service fully operational during lockdown.
“We acted quickly to set up a digital programme of activities to keep our members connected,” Claire explained
“We were successful in getting funding from Big Lottery and SCVO which has been a massive help.
“Members not digitally connected before, now have mobiles and laptops and can confidently use Zoom and Facetime to come together with family across the globe, as well as members in the network.”
Mental Health Changes
Like many organisations Neighbourhood Networks noticed a significant impact on members’ mental health.
To better understand the issues they created their own mental health group.
It provided “a safe space for members to come together and chat about how they were feeling” as well as offering virtual Mindfulness classes and Yoga plus creativity packs for those who could not get online.
Claire added: “As a third sector organisation we’re able to provide frontline support with a lot of others in the local community, where other services such as the local authority had to scale back.”
“The Community Response Network has been a great place to come together with other local organisations and share our work.
“It has helped me get to know people and form positive connections, for example with Inclusive Images and Clifftop Projects, who now work with Neighbourhood Networks and our members on a regular basis, which has been amazing.”
Post-lockdown Neighbourhood Networks is planning to continue the digital work alongside their community-based work.
“It has had a significant impact. Individuals can connect digitally to members from across the central belt which is great, some are more comfortable in front of a screen which helped them grow in confidence.
“Now we just need to harness this and build up confidence off screen where they feel confident in their own local community.”
The charity is now preparing to help their members ease out of lockdown.
“It has been a non-stop rollercoaster and we need to make sure both staff and members feel ready, so we are starting work on getting members out 1:1 to build up confidence” Claire explained.
“I know Covid has been a very stressful time for everyone but there have been some amazing benefits and the main positive is seeing the transformation in members as they have learned skills that previously they may not have had an opportunity to.”
The Big Disability Group
Kevin Crawford, is founder and director of The Big Disability Group.
The organisation helps people struggling with any health issues find and access support.
Pre-Covid their staff and volunteers had weekly information stalls in Clydebank Health Centre, regularly dealing with 80 – 100 enquiries a day.
As everything moved online at the start of lockdown Kevin was fearful people they supported would be even more isolated as many did not use social media.
“We started to put our newsletter into every foodbank in West Dunbartonshire, that was really successful but we knew there were a lot of people not using the foodbanks and not on social media who still needed support.
“The other big challenge for us was making sure we kept our information up to date.
“At the start of lockdown we went through all our contacts to find out what organisations were still open, what support they were providing.
“This kept changing as lockdown restrictions changed and each time we had to go back and fact check what support is being offered.
Throughout the year The Big Disability Group provided a telephone helpline linking people to support.
In the nine months from lockdown to end of 2020 they dealt with over 1800 enquiries – almost double the previous year.
The irregular nature of home-working saw Kevin trying to provide support at all times of the day and night.
“I would be getting calls from people at 11 or 12 at night and at weekends, when you know someone is struggling it’s hard to ignore it, but it started getting into a spiral and I was hardly getting any sleep so I had to bring it back to 9 – 5pm.
“One of big eye-openers is the number of people struggling with mental health problems.
“Perhaps this is because more people feel able to take that first step and talk about their problems because they don’t have to go in and see someone.
“We’re providing support via telephone, text, messenger and some people feel much more comfortable talking about their problems this way.”
But he knows there are also people missing the pre-Covid face-to-face contact and group activities.
“A lot of people we talk to are worried that when lockdown ends things will go back to normal and the support won’t be there for them.
“It would be a shame to go back after people are getting the support they need in the way that works best for them.”
Any local community groups interested in joining the monthly Community Response Network Zoom call please contact firstname.lastname@example.org