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Published: 10th Mar, 2021
For Shropshire Kindness Week, Steve Chapman from Helping Hands Whitchurch shares how a group of local people came together in a crisis to support those in need.
In March 2020, with an impending national lockdown on the horizon and little knowledge of what this meant, I agreed to swap mobile numbers with a friend who’d recently recovered from a serious illness; the simple idea of being there for each other should either of us need to self-isolate.
Whilst working for my friend Hilary Seward in Whitchurch who shared similar thoughts we agreed to broaden the offer help across the community in the knowledge there’d be folk who might struggle for assistance. We researched the Helping Hands movement and set up a Facebook profile page so people would at least know who we were. Other friends joined with similar neighbouring WhatsApp Street groups and out of the impending challenge we all faced, community collaboration was born.
In the interim, Susann Mitchell and Lisa Darkin from Shropshire RCC contacted us offering to come on board with their knowledge and experience, which was a major turning point for us. It allowed HHW to reach out to as many folk as possible offering a basic service based around the limitations of the pandemic covering shopping, prescription pick ups and contact advice for other services on offer in the region. Lisa’s background experience with the Good Neighbours Scheme also enabled us to put a properly organised volunteer recruitment drive in place. At its peak we had over 25 volunteers.
To keep things as accessible, simple and as safe as possible we purchased a mobile phone creating a specific number for people to ring, along with an email address. A WhatsApp Platform was set up to include all the local pharmacies and medical centres, enabling all the key players to keep each other abreast of the situation and to offer help where and when required.
Of the three national lockdowns the first was by far the busiest for HHW, answering over 300 calls for assistance. The country had never experienced this before so it became a case of expecting the unexpected. Actions included helping the public in whatever way we could as well as seeking out makeshift PPE equipment for the medical profession - from providing scrubs made from old sheets by local volunteers to sourcing gloves and aprons donated by local cheesemakers and other businesses.
We received grants and donations to support our efforts to help both administer the emergency number as well as run various community projects. These included providing art packs for families assisted by the local foodbank and the town council, a ‘thank you card and sunflower seed’ initiative for all key workers, spot prizes for volunteers and customers and an art competition. All of this we ran under the constraints of the pandemic. Everyone had to wear masks, sanitise their hands, not enter homes, limit any handling of goods and where possible even quarantine items like the art packs. The Facebook page itself took on its own feature as a platform for sharing positive news and as an information outlet.
By the summer people were becoming more organised with their help, volunteers were returning to work and knowledge of the virus was more widely understood. The pressure of support needed became less frequent. HHW therefore offered its infrastructure as a facility to other groups like Pay It Forward, a scheme set up to help offer food to those in need. We also assisted the town council in relaunching its Friday market with colourful welcoming signage on the high street.
However, as winter approached and with little end in sight, we recognised the increased strain and isolation on local families. To help where we could in the lead up to Christmas HHW teamed up with the local Chamber of Trade to run a Christmas scarecrow competition, which really captured the imagination of the town and we hope will return next Christmas. We were also able to help two other schemes run by benevolent local volunteers Fiona and Abi gifting older isolated people and young families with donated presents.
As we move towards an easement in the lockdown, looking back over what HHW and many others have done and continue to do to help our communities get through this incredibly difficult period in our modern history, it’s the overriding power of community cooperation that’s truly shone through.
The challenge before us is to retain this communal echo, strength, vision and drive. By doing so we’ll stand an even greater chance of facing up to an unknown future with much greater resilience, value, respect and compassion for each other and the planet.
- Steve Chapman, Helping Hands Whitchurch