Guest blog: Julia Williams from BCC Community Development Team

In South Bristol, we’ve built up a dedicated base of volunteers who are responsive and pro-active, creating a cooperative relationship with them– as they support others we support them. We are in touch with 80 volunteers of which 34 are currently active with over 170 hours of volunteering completed. One volunteer has completed 24 hours of service to other residents, an amazing feat I’d say!

Dedication and going above and beyond has been evident – one volunteer waited patiently at an older lady’s door as she went back and forth into her home to bring out the brands of items she wanted. Another volunteer took the time to talk to a lady to find out more about her situation which meant we could identify her need for Occupational Health support and were able to quickly organise adaptive equipment and a GP referral.

Working with Knowle West Alliance, we have regularly asked questions and looked at the ways we are doing things, refining, to make the process and the support offered more efficient. Recently this process has been used as a case study for a European hackathon where programmers across the continent have studied our ‘volunteer shout out’ looking at how tech could make this more automated and streamlined locally, and potentially add value to the Covid 19 Response database.

Having the assets of an institution and structure in place in the community has enabled a quick response to needs of (vulnerable) citizens. Working with systems has been useful and has meant there have been valuable resources to establish a sense of civic responsibility. It has been exciting to see people taking on different roles which have revealed new skills and attributes, people from other organisations who didn’t know each other are now working together, creating a new fabric of connection within the area. It’s been hugely valuable that some of our colleagues in the council have been redeployed to help our team  and have contributed new skills.

We’ve created a place of trust and understanding by communicating and keeping people informed but also being honest when we didn’t have all the answers. Citizens have been very understanding that this is  a work in progress and quick response so it’s not always perfect. There has been huge respect for the volunteers and by the volunteers – not only doing shopping and befriending, but delivering cakes to the NHS, making food packages, gardening, helping find furniture for a single mum who had moved into a home with only bare belongings.

Heather Williams, CEO of the Knowle-West Health Partnership

It has been overwhelming to see the kindness of Bristol, but also the dignity and empathy shown; when a volunteer did someone’s shopping and realised the person had less than £10 he said it opened his eyes to the reality of poverty in the area, that people are seeing with their own eyes what perhaps they had only read in the news, that maybe a new level of understanding is being learnt. The respect for humanity is clear.

Each hub has made it happen – we accepted personal responsibility, everyone has stepped up. We have learnt and built new systems, developed skills; Excel, Google and Zoom have become our best friends!, Everyone has gone the extra mile, working long hours, making sure no-one has been missed, everyone has pulled together.

Volunteers delivered 11, 000 postcards around Knowle West, Knowle and Totterdown to ensure people received information– especially wanting to reach those who were not digitally connected. People from Knowle and Totterdown have come together to form a core group bringing the church, mosque, health workers and Councillors together – a team effort of different religious and political backgrounds working together to support their community. And there has been a collaborative approach with volunteers too as often It is not just about buddying a volunteer with a person – there is complexity and a story behind each one – there are layers that take time and care, like Stuart who lives in Totterdown.

Just before lockdown his wife was away working and began isolating there. His dad who he regularly saw also needed to be shielded.  Stuart has various health implications that cause him to blackout which are not only physically draining but also very frightening.

Stuart has been linked with a befriender to help with his anxiety whilst not having his usual support network around him. A volunteer walks his dog – which not only helps Stuart – he says it has given him a new lease of life – since his dog died last year.

This experience has all been about the skills and abilities people can contribute. The relationships, networks and trust that we are building now, will form the social capital of the community going forward that will be even more important as we come out of lockdown. Community will be needed more than ever and I feel proud to be part of a team who is helping to contribute to that.

Please note: all real names have been hidden to protect the anonymity of volunteers and residents.