Covid 19 - Bringing The Sector Together

The last few months have been some of the hardest and yet, most rewarding of my career. I’m sure I’m not the only person in the local VCFSE sector who feels that way. 

After lockdown started the VCA worked with colleagues from Halton Borough Council (under the banner of One Halton Together) on a project which used volunteers to provide support for shielding individuals with shopping, dog walking and wellbeing calls. We were thrilled to see over 1,200 residents from Halton and St Helens sign up via our new Volunteer Portal and they were able to put themselves forwards for individual voluntary opportunities posted on the Portal’s Covid 19 Community Tasks page. So far the project has supported over 260 residents in Halton. I was supported by my amazing colleagues at Halton & St Helens VCA, but also by a wonderful team of people from the Council, who were Fitness Instructors at Kingsway Leisure Centre prior to the pandemic. We’ve become firm friends and I’ve even participated in their (frankly challenging) Facebook Live workout sessions. The project was hectic and in the first few days, occasionally chaotic, but I loved every minute. Even the times when I got shouted at by residents we were trying to help because shopping was late or (as was the case in one particularly memorable occasion) a volunteer had forgotten to buy milk (a fair point – we all need a cup of tea - it was sorted within the hour). It was exhausting. Like so many colleagues in the sector, I endured seven day working weeks. Being that tired reminded me of when my children were very little, but like I said above, I loved every minute. It was great to help people. Really, really lovely.

During Volunteers Week, which began on Monday 1st June, we released a series of free audio podcasts which celebrated the project. They can be listened to via www.VCAradio.com. In particular, I would recommend the following episode which features several volunteers who explain their motivation for joining the project & explain how they feel it has benefitted them: https://vcaradio.com/2020/06/03/volunteers-week-2020-covid-19-volunteers/  

 

A few weeks into lockdown my son, Fred was completing an activity for school and presented me with this rather lovely portrait. The attention to detail is tremendous (though in truth I have been wearing shorts every day). I particularly like the pile of books that my tiny laptop is resting upon. You can’t tell from the picture, but they are copies of “The Walking Dead” graphic novels. I’m a huge fan of zombies and I always assumed in the past that I would be useless in a Zombie Apocalypse. But now I’m not so sure. I think I’d be good as the person who recruits and supports volunteers to go on scavenging expeditions and deliver food. I suspect dog walking will no longer be seen as a priority in such times. No doubt it would be challenging work, but probably considerably easier than home schooling two primary school aged children.

Above the picture Fred wrote; “Daddy has been helping people and being nice to me. He also reads me Harry Potter and is good at Hagrid’s voice.”

These are sentences I will always treasure. Fred’s being very kind about my Hagrid voice. I’m not sure it’s an accent that would cut the mustard in Cornwall. I’d like to stress (in case any of our Trustees are reading this) that the reading aloud of JK Rowling’s work occurred outside of office hours.

Of course, the VCA wasn’t the only VCFSE organisation in Halton delivering a project supporting shielding residents. There were lots of hugely successful projects out there. We’ll never have exact figures or be able to know the true scale of the impact groups had on Halton residents, but the VCA attempted to log activities and keep track of member organisations work. We know that thanks to groups like Age UK Mid Mersey, the British Red Cross, Halton Carers’ Centre and Citizen’s Advice Halton, around 7000 residents were supported with wellbeing calls, food deliveries and employment or benefit advice. Groups like Sew Halton & Veterans Community Force Halton CIC produced and delivered vital PPE and food to colleagues in hospitals and the wider health sector. I feel bad mentioning any groups really, since I’m missing out so many others. Many, many groups stepped up to the plate and delivered. They all deserve a great deal of credit.

I may have been stood in my bedroom for hours on end, but I felt a real sense of community and togetherness. I felt part of something much bigger. And this feeling gives me great hope for the future of our sector and what we can achieve.

A week or so into lockdown we started facilitating a weekly Zoom meeting for VCFSE groups and statutory colleagues in Halton. The purpose of the meeting was to bring groups together so that we could discuss the statutory & VCFSE sector’s response to Covid 19. We’ve been able to support one another by sharing concerns, advice & best practice. The meetings have also provided colleagues with the chance to question guests such as Mike Amesbury (MP for Weave Vale), Colin Scales (CEO Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust) and Sarah Blackie (Funding Officer – National Lottery).

I’ve loved the meetings, and in particular, I’ve loved watching relationships blossom between the attendees with representatives of groups working together on projects and supporting one another.  Since austerity kicked in, VCFSE organisations have often come to see it each other as competitors. There has been less and less money in the sector and groups sometimes found themselves having to tender against each other for contracts. It’s easy to criticise groups for mission drift, but it’s understandable when so many organisations have been unable to survive. It’s hard to build trust and collaboration in such an environment. As such, I’ve tried very hard to keep the meetings positive and fun, though obviously they need to be practical and relevant or no one would come back.

I think it helps that most people know who I am. I’ve been volunteering in Halton for over 25 years (a statistic I like to remind people of on a regular basis). I’m not someone who’s looking for a transfer to a Charity working in Liverpool or Manchester or to create a profile for myself on the national stage. I really like Halton. It’s where I belong. I think people trust me. They recognise that I might not be the most competent player on the field, but that I’m one with a good heart. Certainly one that won’t try and steal their funding.

Representing the sector has always been a challenge. It’s impossible for one person to represent the whole of the VCFSE in Halton (or anywhere really). Are the viewpoints of a leader at a brand new Mums & Tots club going to be the same as those of a CEO running a franchise of a national Charity? Will the views of the Trustees of a Rowing Club match those of the Trustees of a Veterans Association or Music Society? And do any of those viewpoints deserve to be seen as more valuable than the others?

I think that’s where these meetings & the VCA (by facilitating them) can play an important role. We can bring our members (and any VCFSE organisations) together. We can share our opinions and experiences in a safe, supportive environment.  And we will be listened to by colleagues and decision makers in the Statutory Sector. The Chief Executive of the Council is coming to the next one.

I think we’ll look back on our meetings as the very start of some brilliant partnership working, which benefitted all the groups involved and the residents they support. If I can nurture that in any way, I’ll be really proud.

Matthew Roberts

If you’d like to join our Zoom Meetings, please e-mail mroberts@haltonsthelensvca.org.uk

Our next meeting is at midday on Friday 24th July and then every other Friday

 

Get In Touch

Halton & St Helens VCA 

Halton Office: 01928 592 405
St Maries
Lugsdale Road
Widnes
WA8 6DB

St Helens Office: 01744 457100 
2nd Floor Beacon Building
College Street
St Helens
WA10 1TF

Email: info@haltonsthelensvca.org.uk

About

Halton & St Helens VCA is an infrastructure organisation that provides advice, information and development support services to voluntary, community, not-for-profit and faith organisations and volunteers in the Boroughs of St Helens and Halton.