Bridgwater Community Volunteers in Action

Bridgwater Volunteers out there helping their community

It’s the 37th day of lockdown and across Somerset the authorities are working flat out to identify people who need ‘Shielding’ along with  a broader list of the ‘vulnerable’ across the county. The Somerset Coronavirus Support Helpline 0300 790 6275 has now been operational for 3 weeks and during that time has received over 1600 calls.  Open 7 days a week from 8 – 6pm it has seen a massive increase in calls locally following  Bridgwater Town Council’s decision to send out a leaflet door to door.  Some very vulnerable people have now received help as result. Town Council Leader Brian Smedley (at the back of a 50 person queue at Asda) said ” We put out the leaflet because it was clear that not all vulnerable people were being identified by data held by Government and local councils, but this leaflet got right to the people who needed it most.” So if some people are falling through the gaps, might others be? Early on in the Pandemic ‘Community Support Groups’ were set up across the country by volunteers to make sure no one was left behind in their neighbourhoods. Westover web interviews some of the Bridgwater people involved.

The Organisers story

Simon Bale organising the logistics of the operation

The Coronavirus Community Help Bridgwater Group was set up on day 1 of the crisis by Dan and Kirsty and was backed immediatly  by the Town and District Council and now also works with the Village Agents, SPARK and the Hub Bridgwater. Key organiser is Simon Bale whose role it is to co-ordinate the volunteers and the people in need. Simon says “It’s going well! After the initial set up period where we weren’t sure what we could do, we realised that the shopping and meds were key and we’ve got that running smoothly now… mostly! There is a group of around 20-25 volunteers who do most things, but an extra dozen or so who dip in and out where they can. Our procedures have developed a rhythm and a pattern with people ‘putting their hand up’ for a chance to help mostly within half an hour of the request being made. “

Town Council Leader “Shopping on the Frontline”

But what does a typical volunteer have to do? Simon continues “The Shopping includes food bank parcel delivery, and the meds are organised by pharmacies with Village Agent involvement. The shopping seems to be taking on a life of its own with volunteers doing ‘repeat’ visits, and I know for sure that some good relationships have developed there. We’ve also provided people to chat to others on the phone, to help with loneliness and anxiety, and some have had dog walking and lawn mower opportunities as well!”

Simon added “ There is a relaxed atmosphere with nobody reporting any tension or annoyance with the process nor the jobs they’re being asked to undertake. An average day might be a trip to the shops for a couple of people, or maybe a pharmacy trip every few days. It doesn’t seem to be onerous, and the volunteers are finding it fulfilling. Do we need more? Well, it’s always good to have volunteers, but I wouldn’t worry if we stabilised as we are. We are coping, and it is good to hear the stories of good people helping good people.”

Shopping trolleys primed…

To offer to vounteer you can email, or  to seek support, then the main phone number 0300 790 6275. Also, in both instances, and search for Bridgwater. There’s also a Facebook site

Simon, who also volunteers at the Foodbank, says “My day is a mixture of fielding email enquiries from volunteers who need a bit of clarification, posting out requests to the volunteer team and then following that up with the details they need (we are trying to keep things as confidential as possible), liaising with Village Agents about food banks and pharmacy collections and, well any other query that comes my way. Each evening I spend some time just going back through the day. My side kick(!) Eva brings the database up to date and I generally try to ensure the requests have all been picked up (they generally are). I spend most of the day just keeping things moving along. Weekends are quieter but not always empty of need. The foodbank: I volunter anyway there so I’m always popping in and out when they’re open, but I work closely with the village agents on this as well. Making sure the vouchers go to the bank before volunteers turn up to collect the parcels etc. The food bank are doing an amazing job keeping things moving and maintaining their stock. The food bank is not just a response to Covid, of course. It is a sadly permananent feature of Bridgwater and around the area. But use has increased since the lockdown. I hope it will bring the issue of food poverty to the attention of more people as a result.”

Simon Bale updates the steering committee on how things are going

So what’s the most important things that people can do?? Simon adds “Most important is to keep aware of who might be vulnerable and concentrate on their needs. Vulnerable includes mental vulnerability as much or more than physical isolation. That’s the first .Second, I’d say encourage people who need support to phone the 0300 number. Its the ‘front door’ to support. Third, just offer to help. Don’t be fearful of what might go wrong, because its not really a problem. Mostly people are grateful of support. If you’ve got time for more formal commitment, then please do sign up as a volunteer! The ‘tiers’ seem to work well together. As a former community agent I know well how they operate, and so that is a very straightforward relationship. Local authority officers have been very grateful for what we’re doing and as volunteers I think we’ve been given great respect. I was at pains to start with the right GDPR and safeguarding notions, so it’s been very open and fluid. Other somerset wide initiatives have dovetailed with us well.”

The Volunteers story

Eva Kam making a doorstep delivery from a safe distance

Eva Kam is one of these active volunteers. She says  “I joined since day 1 and am supporting 8 households, some individuals and some are couples who have been told to self-isolate. So I am doing their weekly food shopping so they can stay safely at home. For some people, the food parcel doesn’t meet their dietary requirements, such as diabetes and allergies, so they also need help with food shopping. And they have asked me to forward items to others who can use them. We need more neighbors to get involved. ‘Shop for your neighbor’  . CCHB now have over 300 people on the database, food shopping, meds, walking dogs and all sort. A strong team of strangers getting together, being supportive and positive. People really appreciate what we do, but of course some feel bad that we are running around for them. One couple out in Nether Stowey, I do their weekly shopping, also gave me £25 to buy food for food bank. It can be upsetting as well. 2 of my ongoings broke down in tears on the phone but I told them I love food shopping and we are here to help each other through this. And I say when we get to the other side, if I need help, I will call you! Works every time!!”

John Hardy on a pharmacy run

There are plenty of volunteers like Eva, people like Lesley Gates who is cooking food for people for free and has now reached 300 hundred meals. Lesley didn’t want to be interviewed and would rather ‘just get on with it’.

And there’s people like John Hardy  who  is keen  to promote various organisations that help him at the Hub such as the Armed Forces Breakfast Club, Hidden Voices, Blind Veterans and all the other Hub volunteers. He says “This highlights the reason why I set up the Hub in the first instance because together we achieve more. I also want to look at projects beyond this crisis to serve our community and I think the Hub is well placed to participate in this.” 

The Councillors tale

Westover councillor Kathy Pearce has done some shop runs and says “These are testing times and the most important thing first and foremost is to keep in touch with others.  Offering to do the shopping, doing prescription runs or just a chat on the phone or over the fence can make a lot of difference to someone’s day, especially family and friends who may not be online and are self-isolating. “

Leigh Redman and a typical cycle route around town

Westover’s County Councillor Leigh Redman , always a man of action at best of times, was quick off the mark in this pandemic, so we asked him how easy it is to take the decision to get involved. . Leigh says “People have asked me what happens when you volunteer? As soon as the call for volunteers was made, I joined Coronavirus community helpers Bridgwater. I signed up for NHS Good Samaritan app and offered to support where required. But when I volunteered to help people, little did I realise what I was letting myself in for!! Prescriptions, food and dog walking were on the list, I’ve cut a lawn, walked dogs and currently averaging 8-10 miles a day on my bike delivering prescriptions around Bridgwater. My Wife and I have been sharing the duties, we do them separately, she does the talking & dog walking. There is a real need to help those isolating, ill or just broke. It’s an emotional roller coaster for both helper and those being helped. I’ve had people crying when I deliver milk and bread and  there are, of course, those that are there to take advantage, but they are a real exception and easily routed out….yes there was one call that asked us just to pick up some wine for them, but  the vast majority are truly grateful. “

Leigh gets out ‘on his bike’

So How’s it going? Leigh says “I am concerned though, I don’t think we are reaching out enough, there should be more demand for our service, and  I’m concerned we may be missing people, the old, lonely and vulnerable. So when Bridgwater Town Council put out their leaflet I knew we would pick up more. I need to ask you all to check on those neighbours you, make sure they are getting the support they deserve, people should not be alone at this time, go check on that old neighbour you may not have seen for a few days, go check on that young mother who has not been about recently, it will be a good thing and you just might save someone. The picture shows me at a Chemist ready for pick up, on my way round and one of my delivery trips, being able to give something back in these times of need and get fitter too. Remember there is one number to get help or advise in Somerset 0300 790 6275 . Stay safe and check on your neighbour.”

Hilary loads up the boot of her car

Councillor Hilary Bruce has only just been elected for the Fairfax ward which covers Sydenham and Bower, and couldn’t have expected that her first year as a councillor was going to look like this! She says “As a furloughed employee, I wanted to put my free time to good use and volunteering seems the best way to do it. I have mainly been delivering prescriptions and doing shopping for people who are self-isolating, from the elderly and vulnerable, to those who are recuperating from this nasty virus. People are so grateful, not just for the help in getting them food and medicine, but also the chance to have a socially distanced conversation with another human being when you turn up at their doorstep. I am incredibly impressed with those working hard to coordinate the volunteer networks in our area. I work with the CCHB group and all those involved show a great deal of sensitivity and consideration to both the clients and the volunteers. To all the volunteers, coordinators, village agents, council officers, etc. I would like to pass on a message I often receive from those I have helped – “Thank you so much for all you do”. 

A word from the Chair

CCHB Chair Liam Tucker

Chair of the Coronavirus Community Help Bridgwater Group is Westover resident Liam Tucker who says “To me it became evident that this epidemic was unlike anything we had seen in recent memory. So I decided that as a (relatively) healthy young man with a background in social care the least I could do was sign up with my local volunteer group. I have some experience with community organising and wasn’t surprised to find the founding volunteers were frontline NHS workers and Trades Union officials. Everything happened at break neck speed and we quickly met with our Town Councillors and representatives from Sedgemoor. Volunteers from the community stepped up in droves, selflessly taking on the risk to themselves to protect and support the elderly and vulnerable amongst us. I feel incredibly proud of my little home town and it’s fantastic and admirable people that are an unending source of bravery, kindness and compassion. Look after each other as we go forward, as always, together. “

The Town Council Leaflets ‘Get this number out there!’

For your first port of call on Coronavirus information use the one front door number

0300 790 6275.

To follow the CCHB Facebook site go here.

Regular Covid 19 updates are available on the Bridgwater Town Council website here.