Sunday, 31 May 2020

Neighbours come to the rescue during lockdown

Neighbours come to the rescue during lockdown

SCORES of Goring residents have signed up to a “street champions” scheme to help neighbours who are self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost 700 people have joined the Combat Corona Volunteers group on Facebook, which was set up by villager Helena Fahie to either offer or request assistance.

More than 100 have added their names to a list of helpers and put postcards through every door in their street giving their contact details for others in need.

Most areas now have at least one designated volunteer and some have two or three who will fetch shopping, collect prescriptions, walk dogs or simply offer friendship and a chat over the telephone.

All have been given detailed guidance on keeping themselves and others safe, which includes staying out of other people’s houses, avoiding physical contact and maintaining personal hygiene.

The group also serves as a forum for people to share advice on health, fitness, home schooling and other matters.

Ms Fahie, who moved to Goring about three years ago, is a registrar in public health medicine for Public Health England and has been helping to co-ordinate the national response to the pandemic.

She was part of a team which decided whether to put people into quarantine or isolation before the Government’s strategy changed from containing the disease to delaying its spread.

Ms Fahie launched the group on March 15 and convened its first meeting using Facebook Live three days later.

She was overwhelmed by the response and says offers of help are still rolling in.

Ms Fahie said: “Through my work, I realised what a massive impact the disease was having on people’s mental health and general wellbeing. There were people who’d just lost loved ones and faced the added stress of being quarantined.

“I eventually thought, ‘right, this is where the community steps in’. The authorities have a role to play in keeping people safe but we all have a responsibility to look after our neighbours and keep a close eye on them.

“I had one night where I just couldn’t sleep so I got the ball rolling on Facebook and it all went from there.

“It’s not about discussing the politics or the national picture — the aim is simply to help on a day-to-day level.

“My vision was that everyone would have a designated contact who they could phone for a friendly chat or something more practical.

“It’s not just about that support network but keeping vulnerable people from going outside unnecessarily, so it’s as much a public health intervention as anything else.

“About 4,000 people viewed that initial meeting and I was so overwhelmed by the response that I had to quickly put together an admin team to help me run everything.

“I’ve had to step back to focus on my work but now that it’s up and running it has a life of its own. I’m so pleased that we could offer a glimmer of hope when there was so much anxiety and fear.

“It makes me so proud of where I live when I see how many caring, competent and capable people there are.”

Ms Fahie’s team work closely with Westholme Stores in Wallingford Road, whose owner Jack Patel and his family are boxing up groceries for volunteers to drop on customers’ doorsteps.

The volunteers have also been collecting unwanted hand creams and other toiletries to donate to NHS and social care workers.

“There’s so much they can do, even if it’s checking up on an elderly person to reassure a relative who lives 100 miles away,” said Ms Fahie.

“At a time like this, nobody wants to feel useless. There’s a lot of moaning and speculation online but this puts people’s minds to constructive use and gives them a bit of control.

“Even medically vulnerable people who can’t go outside can still help by being a ‘digital buddy’ to others and showing them how to use online services.

“Shopping is obviously in demand and lots of people need help with prescriptions, especially as there’s such a long wait because pharmacies have reduced their opening hours.

“There are also lots of requests for phone calls just to break up the day and people have been sharing a lot of resources on the Facebook page like advice on staying fit at home.

“Jack and his family have been amazing and deserve a special thank-you. They’re a Goring institution and were already delivering to the vulnerable before this happened but they’ve really stepped up.

“They’re a small family business so they don’t have a lot of staff and we’re very grateful for everything they’ve done.”

The group is now working with the Q1 Foundation in High Street, which runs The Care Hub for the elderly, to help villagers who aren’t confident using the internet or don’t yet have a street champion.

The charity’s premises at The Arcade have closed but co-ordinator Debs Newell-Akers, who lives nearby, is running a telephone helpline from home.

She explains how callers can access the Facebook group or makes requests on their behalf if they find this difficult.

Mrs Newell-Akers can also send out her own volunteers, who have undergone background checks, and may recruit more to meet the extra demand.

She is in talks with Goring Parish Council and South Oxfordshire District Council, which could offer practical or financial support.

Mrs Newell-Akers said: “It has always been our role to address social needs by signposting our clients to others who can help, so we’re still doing the same thing but in a bigger way.

“We’ve opened up to anyone who is isolated and are here for the whole community.

“I’ve got my own database of volunteers and some of them will do anything while others will do specific things like dog walking.

“There are so many people offering to help and I’ve used my own street champion because I’m pregnant so I’ve seen it from the other side. Everyone’s pulling together and it’s lovely to see.”

Maggie Filipova-Rivers, who represents the village on the district council and is cabinet member for community services, has arranged for ward members to be allocated £2,000 to award to groups which are helping during the crisis.

She said: “Goring, like many other communities, has pretty much organised itself with little intervention or encouragement from us.

“I have provided the volunteers with up-to-date information but they’ve done everything by themselves. They’ve identified different levels of need which can be dealt with by different groups, whether that’s the street champions or Q1.

The foundations are in place and we’re just waiting to hear exactly how Q1 and the parish council will be working together before they’ll be in a position to apply for the money.

“The application process will be very quick because of the urgency of the situation and I’m pleased that there’s been cross-party support for providing extra funding.

“Henley Residents Group, for example, has been extremely grateful and excited to have it and is busy looking at the best way to allocate it.”

Goring Parish Council hopes to recruit about 30 street champions as “official” volunteers for elderly people who don’t know their neighbours and are worried about trusting strangers.

Each one would undergo background checks and health and safety training and would be given a badge with a phone number which householders could call to confirm their identity.

This will be overseen by a temporary co-ordinator funded by the district council and Oxfordshire County Council, which is responsible for social care.

Paris councillor Bryan Urbick said: “So many people have put themselves forward to do an amazing job for their community, whether they’re shopping, posting letters or just keeping people company.

“It’s very encouraging to see everyone reaching out to their neighbours so we support that and want it to continue, along with the excellent work being done by Q1.

“However, some people might feel uncomfortable talking to their neighbour or just need a bit of extra help with a more complicated situation. We can refer them to Q1 or the street champions if it’s appropriate, or we may need to involve social services or the police if there are more serious issues. It’s about making sure that nobody falls through the cracks.”

For help in Goring, call (01491) 525639 between 9am and 5pm during the week or visit

A champions scheme has also been launched in Woodcote with the aim of appointing two volunteers per road.

Most streets now have at least one and organisers expect to cover the entire village soon.

The scheme was founded by resident Rachael Winterbottom, who is running it with help from other villagers, including parish councillor Helen Booker.

Most activity is managed through the group’s Facebook page, although the volunteers have also set up a dedicated mobile number and publicised it through a leaflet drop to help those who are not online.

Miss Booker, of Reading Road, said most requests came from older residents needing shopping or prescriptions to be collected.

She said: “It has been lovely to see how many people are willing to help, although naturally we don’t expect anything less. People want to help and I’d be doing this even if I wasn’t a councillor.

“We’ve managed to cover almost every road and our volunteers have been happy to take on additional areas to make sure nobody is left out. It has been very important to ensure that everyone is aware of the group, including those who don’t have access to Facebook. We wanted to create a central point of contact as it’s more effective than having everyone doing different things.

“The main challenge has been adapting to a constantly changing set of rules imposed by the Government to ensure that everyone is protected and nobody takes unnecessary risks.

“We’re trying to minimise the number of trips that volunteers make by, in the first instance, encouraging people to shop online. There are no slots left with the supermarkets but some local suppliers are selling, which is good for the local economy.

“We’re being extremely conscientious in what we ask of our volunteers because we don’t want to put them in any danger or ask too much of them when nobody knows how long this is going to last.

“Some older people have called to say that they’re fine for now but grateful for what we’re doing. It gives them some extra reassurance just to know that we’re here if they need it.”

Ms Winterbottom said members of Woodcote’s regular volunteer group, a community transport service which has been running for more than 20 years, had done their best to help but were struggling as many of them were older and having to self-isolate.

She said: “Nobody was doing anything a few weeks ago but I’m between work contracts and I’ve got friends in Italy so I knew how bad it could get.

“I wanted to help because it seemed a lot of people were like rabbits caught in the headlights. Everyone wanted to do something but there was no leadership. It’s important that we’ve got a phone number which the village surgery can vouch for because some elderly people are understandably worried about trusting people.

“It has gone really well so far, which is great because some older people had already started losing weight. They were trapped at home and couldn’t get supermarket deliveries as they’re all booked up for weeks. You could hear the stress in their voices when they got in touch and some of them aren’t online in any way, not even for basic things like email.

“We’ve set up a ‘buddy’ system so they can phone people who are lonely and that has gone down very well. We’ve had some lovely feedback from people who feel much more at ease and it’s heartwarming to know you’ve made a difference.”

She is confident the community will keep the service going.

Ms Winterbottom said: “Volunteers can be brilliant at the beginning but there’s always a chance that they’ll get overwhelmed or have to self-isolate so we’ll need enough people on board to back them up.

“It’s not going to be an easy ride but we’ve got so many good, kind-hearted individuals in Woodcote that I’m sure we’ll get through it. It’s like during the war — people rose to the challenge and got stuck in.

“We’re seeing such incredible community spirit and I’m sure this crisis will permanently change our ways. We will become a lot less self-absorbed.”

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