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Cholsey Volunteers –

‘Heroes of the pandemic’

Why did you set up your Good Neighbour Scheme?

We set up Cholsey Volunteers due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Cholsey Day Centre had to close. The church and the parish council came together as there was a desire from the community to help. Cholsey Older Persons Activities group and the Older Persons Support Worker very quickly and very efficiently put together a set of services that could support the elderly in the village, such as getting prescriptions and shopping.

I got involved because I had been made redundant and I came along and said I wanted to help. My brother-in-law was running the pub at the time and because he was closed they used the pub first for making the hot dinners that went out. I volunteered going round delivering hot dinners and they couldn’t get rid of me!

I really enjoyed volunteering; the Cholsey Day Centre Chair asked me to join the committee for the Day Centre which I agreed to. They also needed somebody to help coordinate the volunteers. I came on board as a part time employee in September 2020 – to put the all the processes needed in place.

The impact of Covid-19

We found very quickly that there were a lot of people that needed support, those who didn’t have any family at all in the village or their family lived far away. We thought initially, ‘oh, we’ll only be needed until next month, then we’ll wind up.’ We set up because of Covid, and everyone thought that was going to be a short-term thing, but it wasn’t.

Covid brought things to the fore. For example, we had wanted to do meals on foot before Covid, but we never bit the bullet and did it; Covid meant we all got pushed into things that we had wanted to do. Because the Day Centre was closed it was used as a base for prescription collection, packing of food boxes and we were even cooking at one point, between us and the pub!

Pre-Covid we knew there was a need in the village, for example for prescription collection but we were not aware how big the need was. The chemist used to have someone that delivered prescriptions, but they stopped doing it. Now the Cholsey Volunteers do it, so there is a service if people can’t get out. We were doing it five days a week, now two days a week. Even on Tuesday this week I had five people wanting prescriptions picking up.

The other thing that was around before Covid were the volunteer drivers. The village had a team of volunteers to take residents to appointments but most of the drivers were over 70 and they all stopped driving at the start of Covid. A lot of the volunteers that had come on board during our Covid recruitment picked up the volunteer driving. Some of them have stayed on and some have gone back to work so don’t do it anymore. The lady that was running the volunteer driving service rang me to say she didn’t want to go back to doing it, she is 70 herself, and could the service come over to us.

We then became aware that people were contracting Covid that were not elderly, people called saying, ‘I’m 25, I don’t think you can help me…I’ve got Covid, and I need some milk and we explained that this is EXACTLY what we’re here for.’ We also supported a couple of families and went on to build up a relationship with the school. When it went into lockdown in January 2021 it became apparent that there were a number of families that were struggling with their mental health and financially with children at home for such prolonged periods of time; families found they were spending more money on food. Overnight at Christmas we went from supporting three families to 12. I speak to the support worker at the local school once a month, we review and she is really good, she is very honest with the families and asks if they are still happy getting the food boxes, and through this process we find they drop off as the family realises that they don’t need it anymore. Some families have been there all the time, some new families come along. We provide this kind of support as well.

There was another example of a gentleman who fell down the stairs and broke his arm. He was one of our volunteers. His neighbour contacted us as he was concerned about the gentleman as he couldn’t cook with his broken arm. He was living on his own and not really eating. We asked, ‘if we give you hot food for a week would that help?’ And it did. He never thought he would need our services, but he did. We have also supported people with hot food that have been through chemo. These are examples of times where we have really been able to help.

Mobilising an army of volunteers

We have 300 volunteers on our books, they’re not all active now as a lot have gone back to work. There are some people that have volunteered day in day out. For example, the people making and delivering the hot food – it’s pretty much the same people that have been there since day one. I try to make sure volunteers are not doing too many different things as I think they will get bored, and it will take up too much of their time. We do struggle in some cases, especially with transport. The Day Centre no longer receives funding to transport their members. When Cholsey Volunteers took over the volunteer driver scheme we decided to work closely with the drivers and hope that they could find volunteers to bring people in. More people are asking for transport. And it is now starting to drain resources; transport to the day centre is important for someone’s mental health but if someone needs to get to hospital for a medical appointment we would also like to be able to get them there.

Our Facebook page was used to mobilise people that wanted to help in the village. 200 people came forward that wanted to help, many people were on furlough, and they wanted to help.

As well as Facebook, to get the word out about Cholsey Volunteers, we have used targeted mail drops – the Scouts help us deliver the leaflets. We also use our local Tesco – they have signage up for us and do a collection box for the food bank. BBC Radio Oxford follow our Facebook page and I’ve done three or four radio interviews over the past two years. This publicity started with our Christmas lights – let’s try and light up Cholsey Day Centre. We wanted to do something as people couldn’t come in. BBC Radio Oxford rang straightaway and wanted to interview me. We got lots of people donating lights and the Centre looked beautiful. The radio also contacted me to ask if two DofE participants would like to be interviewed on the day of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. This was good as it was helping others to help others. The younger adults in the village who are doing DofE can use Cholsey Volunteers for the volunteering part of their award. They’ve helped do the fish and chip delivery on a Friday; garden clearance at the Day Centre and in people’s houses; and they’ve also delivered treat bags for us.

Cholsey Volunteers won a High Sheriff of Oxfordshire Award, which recognised heroes of the pandemic. All of this has helped to raise awareness of Cholsey Volunteers; making sure people know who we are and we are here to help.

What’s next?

Cholsey Volunteers has recently received its charity status. This opens a lot of avenues, for example we can now put Cholsey Volunteer’s name down for the blue discs at Tesco’s. And it will enable us to apply for other grants and funding opportunities to continue our work and to help deliver specific projects. Right now, we are looking to form an advocacy group to help support people. We always find an avenue somewhere to expand our services.

Has Cholsey Volunteers’ story inspired you?

If you are thinking about setting up a Good Neighbour Scheme in your community and would like advice and support, please contact the Good Neighbour Scheme Co-ordinator, Martha Holland, on 01993 776277 or email Martha at oxfordshiregns@vlu.org.uk