How a trip to the Butchers, a magic porch, and a burner phone became Studley’s answer to help a community in lockdown… by Ruth Jewell
Sometimes, before you know how it happened, the seed of an idea has taken root.
In the case of the Studley Isolation Support Group, not only did that seed take root, but in an incredibly short time, a whole forest grew.
On 17th March 2020 I popped into Bespoke Butchers, and whilst there had a conversation with Ross, a fellow member of Studley in Business. We talked about the COVID Crisis, and how he was struggling to get a message to the older residents in the village to let them know that they could ring through an order, and he would deliver. I suggested that we needed to find a way to deliver a leaflet to every house in the village. The seed was sewn.
I set off to work with my mind working overtime. By the time I got home, I was frantically making calls and sending emails to the Studley in Business committee, drumming up support to create, print, and post a leaflet.
Whilst my brain was working overtime, so was Amy Thomas’s. Amy is a working Mum, and during a conversation, at the nursery gate, another seed was sewn. Amy set up a Facebook Group calling for volunteers to support those who were having to isolate in our community.
As soon as I realised that we had a similar aim I contacted Amy, and we joined forces. Things moved more quickly than we could ever have imagined. We attended a meeting called by the Parish Council Emergency Planning Committee, and we thrashed out a plan. In the meantime, the leaflet was rapidly being pulled together, with funding secured and a generous offer from PSW to print the leaflets completely free of charge. Volunteers were signing up to the Facebook Group and a mobile phone (that we nicknamed the burner phone) was provided by the Parish Council.
The initial plan was for a group of us to socially distance in the Entaco to collate the leaflets into roads, and then volunteers, but with Lockdown this was no longer possible. Whilst Amy frantically added volunteers to a WhatsApp group (at one point whilst playing hide and seek with her three-year-old), and allocated roads to volunteers, I roped in my husband to help count and collate the leaflets, before dropping half with Amy and then finding roads we never knew existed, whilst dropping off the leaflets with our volunteers. We left them on the step, rang the bell, and returned to the car. At each house, we received a cheerful thumbs up or wave, a good indicator that we had found the right house!
Within hours a leaflet had dropped through every single letterbox, and whilst, annoyingly, there was one digit missing on one phone number, we had pulled off something incredible. Little did we know then that this was only the beginning.
The ‘Burner Phone’
We recruited four other volunteers, who joined us in taking a day each week to answer the burner phone. A spreadsheet was created, which gave us the ability to record each call, and which volunteer was carrying out the task, and thanks to modern technology we can all see the changes in real-time, so it is always accessible and up to date.
Protocols had been put in place to ensure the safety of the volunteers, and those we are supporting, and these were shared widely with our volunteers. Likewise, they were explained each time we took a call, ensuring anyone who asked for help understood that their safety was paramount.
Calls come in thick and fast, and sometimes, within seconds of popping a message into the WhatsApp group, a volunteer would accept the task. Nothing has ever been too much trouble. In those early days toilet rolls and flour were like gold dust, but the support network, created by the volunteers, always managed to track down a much- needed item.
Amy and I became efficient at exchanging text messages, voice messages, video calls, and a distanced doorstep catch up each week when I handed over the phone. We knew that the group would need to evolve to deal with the changing situation, and it continues to do so.
Paper deliveries and Pharmacy Runs
What quickly became evident was how important things like a daily newspaper are for those stuck at home. We soon had volunteers doing daily paper deliveries. Likewise, many calls came in with requests for prescriptions that needed to be taken to, or collected from, the Pharmacy.
Two ladies quickly formed the Pharmacy team, building up a strong relationship with the staff at the Pharmacy and the Doctors. This also reduced, dramatically, the number of people needing to visit the pharmacy each day. Diane and Ann have the collection and delivery down to a fine art now.
We quickly realised that we needed to add in more WhatsApp groups. This enabled us to have a general ‘chat’ group for the volunteers, as well as a separate Pharmacy Group, where we could post the daily requests. We realised that donations of the Government parcels to the Foodbank needed to be collected, and also Foodbank parcels delivered to those who are shielding, so another Group was formed. This left the Job Group free for the day to day job requests.
Some of those we were supporting quickly built up friendships with our volunteers, and would call or message them directly for support. All of these calls have continued to be logged onto the spreadsheet, for the safety of our volunteers, and those they are supporting.
The Magic Porch
At the outset of the crisis I had placed a box on the shelf in my porch, and a sign at the front of my lawn, inviting people to take away books and jigsaws for anyone who was isolating. I also asked for donations. My porch soon became a hive of activity. Some days there would be masses of puzzles and books, and then an hour later the box would be very depleted. A couple of hours later and there would be another donation.
With the wonderful weather the boxes (up to three most days) would sit at the end of the lawn and we would watch people stop and choose a book or two, or drive up and make a delivery. On wet days we have shadows in the porch, browsing through the boxes. I am now trying to locate a waterproof storage box that we can leave permanently on the front lawn, as I feel this is such a lovely thing to continue.
My porch also became the home for anything we needed for our volunteers. They message me, and I leave out their ID passes and the stickers I made for their cars (on my Cricut machine), forms and spare leaflets, PPE items, the list is endless. Cars pull up, shadows appear in the porch and then they are gone again!
Those we are supporting have been keen to pay back in some way. None of our volunteers are doing this for anything other than the wonderful feeling they get to be supporting their community, so we made the decision that we would accept monetary donations on behalf of the Foodbank. These are all paid through the Studley in Business bank account, ensuring we have a healthy paper trail.
At Easter, Sian, the Chair of Studley in Business, collated 25 gift bags with items donated by some of the Studley Businesses. These were delivered to those we were supporting most regularly. Since then Studley Castle has donated 72 tins of biscuits, and then three weeks later, 75 gift bags. A team of volunteers had the lovely task of dropping these onto doorsteps and making lots of people very happy indeed.
With lockdown easing and businesses opening up, we felt that there was a need for a second edition of our leaflet. Yet again Studley in Business pulled out all the stops and this was duly printed, collated in my Dining Room, and delivered to every household.
With the VE Day stay at home Street party having been such a success, some of the burner phone ladies set too and arranged a further day of activities for the late May Bank Holiday. These ranged from Aunty Jen sitting on her roof and telling stories, to a teddy bear’s picnic, quiz and disco.
We have proudly presented certificates to the volunteers who have completed a task that signifies a special achievement, most recently this was our 2,000th task (never a job, that implies paid work, and our volunteers receive no payment).
Little did Amy or I know that those tiny seeds that we planted would result in this. A community of volunteers for whom nothing is too much trouble. A group who didn’t know each other, but have become friends and supporters, a shoulder to lean on, a sounding board, someone to tap for advice. An incredible force for good.
I have made friends that I hope will remain in my life forever, I have chatted to so many people in our community, all of whom I can’t wait to meet, I have dusted off skills that I thought that I would never need to use again, I have found roads that I never knew existed, and I think everyone in the village probably now knows where my porch is!
The virus has not gone away, and neither will we. We are here for as long as it takes, and I very much hope that the amazing legacy of this group will continue to do good in our community long after we send the virus packing.