Civil society has come into its own during the Covid 19 pandemic with thousands giving up their time to help others – and no more so than in Sussex.
By Peter Simpson
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the best out in our communities, with scores of volunteer groups across our county springing up to lend a hand and keep an eye on the vulnerable.
From dropping off and picking up prescriptions to a simple telephone call to say hello and check if everything is ok, one definite positive of these strange and challenging times has been the rejuvenation and demonstration of the community spirit.
Though much decried and rightly so in many ways, social media has been an essential tool in this movement, bringing volunteers together and identifying particular areas of greatest need. Those weeks of lockdown were long, and would have felt interminable for some were it not for the ability to contact and be contacted, either through the Zoom and Microsoft Teams platforms, Facetime, WhatsApp – or just simple phone calling.
Notices were posted daily from Sussex volunteer groups asking someone to step in for a mission or to pass on vital information.
“Hi, was looking for some help, a good friend of mine is an elderly lady living in Lancing. She is desperate for some jigsaw puzzles! She has been shielding since the end of February and is climbing the walls… Any help and advice would be much appreciated” went one such request from the Lancing and Sompting Coronavirus Support Group.
“Would anyone be able to collect a prescription from Paydens in Broadwater for me, please?” Was one of scores of similar requests made – and answered – by members of the Broadwater Covid-19 support group in Worthing.
“We sometimes suspected that people’s families were delivering the healthy things, probably taking dinners over – because we did get a lot of lists that didn’t include the normal staples but instead asked for things like chocolate, and biscuits, and things that you wouldn’t necessarily call essential items,” said one volunteer we spoke to, who asked not to be named. “But actually – to people isolating or feeling scared, I think you could argue that a piece of chocolate now and then is pretty vital.”
Unquestionably, the altruism on display these past few months has saved the day not just for many vulnerable individuals but also for our communities. The selflessness has shone a light on priorities, making many revaluate how we live our lives. And these acts of magnanimity deserve to be celebrated, remembered and most importantly, continued.
Caring4Sussex spoke to a couple of the scores of support groups to find out what they have been doing and the impact they are having.
Libraries on a mission to look out for vulnerable people
Another force of helpers who have received little mention during the crisis is the library workers across West Sussex.
Libraries were closed to the public on March 17 – but this was just the start of an immense operation which involved book delivery drivers swapping their cargo for food parcels, library staff offering online activities like Rhyme Time, for parents and toddlers, that they could no longer hold physically, and picking up prescriptions for those who didn’t have family members that could help.
They then set themselves the task of contacting every single vulnerable person in the county to make sure they were coping.
Wendy Daughtrey, 49, is one such Community Hub responder.
“The government gave West Sussex County Council a list of nine thousand vulnerable people in the county, and we divided the list between areas,” said Wendy. “In Shoreham and Southwick we had 500 on our list, and three of us made sure we gave every person on that list an initial call to make sure they had support.
“Some of them said they were fine and had families to help, so we didn’t need to keep calling those, but the rest we rang every two weeks, always making sure it was the same person who rang.
“I rang some people whose partners had died from Covid. Some people didn’t speak to anyone else apart from us, and really looked forward to hearing from us. I made a note of what they told me so I could bring it up again the next time we spoke – there was one man who told me it was his birthday soon – I was able to ring him and see how it went.”
With libraries closing around the country, a vital community resource is disappearing; a place where people who often see no one all week are able to go, be recognised by the staff and spend time with others.
“We are about so much more than putting books on shelves,” says Wendy. “We know all of our borrowers, and if there’s anything wrong we are often the first ones to know about it. We know if they need large print, or audio – and we’re there just if they want to come in and spend time with us.
“If all the libraries close, where do all these people go?”
And in Hassocks…
Jermayn French and partner began the Hassocks and Keymer Volunteers Covid-19 Group in March, aiming to help the vulnerable and high-risk members of their community for as long as they needed help and support.
The group answered more than 1,000 calls during the 18 weeks that they operated for, processed and delivered nearly 400 food orders and collected and delivered more than 350 medical prescriptions to those self-isolating or shielding.
“We always intended to be there for the vulnerable and high-risk members of our community for as long as they needed help and support,” says Jermayn. “Our group has now drawn to a close, though we are running a skeleton service until the end of August and we have referred and signposted those we have been supporting to other services that are now starting to resume.”
The group’s volunteers will remain on a register if there is a second wave and will be ready to pick up the phone again to anyone who needs them.
“It has been incredibly heart-warming to see how our community has pulled together over the past few months,” says Jermayn. “Together we stand.”