Community Belonging – Lessons From Lockdown

I’m fortunate to have two part time jobs. I work as a research assistant at the University of Edinburgh with “bold” (Bringing out Leaders in Dementia) project and, I am also the family and community development worker with my local Church of Scotland.

I had started attending the church in January 2019 and started my employment with them a year later in January 2020. Our church has a strong community focus and has a large congregation with over 70 elders. I was just starting to get to know the individuals in the church, and there were lots of people that I still hadn’t met.

The main aim of my role was to develop relationships between the community and church and offer support to the whole community with a focus on mental health, bereavement, dementia, and social isolation. When I started the job, little did I know that a pandemic lay in front of us.

During the first few months of my employment I was able to get to know and build relationships with different community and health groups. By February we had teamed up with a local mental health peer support group and had completed our dementia friends training in March. My next project was to set up a fortnightly gathering for people living with dementia. Plans were all put in place to start the dementia inclusive gathering, and then we were launched into lockdown which meant this was all put on hold.

My priorities took a sudden jolt and a shift in focus from developing to face to face community support, to setting up a community response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Church Elders contacted every member of their district to ask if anyone needed support and who could help. Within 48 hours of lockdown being announced, over 20 volunteers had come forward to help vulnerable people in our community with shopping, collecting prescriptions and offering a friendly regular chat to those who were feeling particularly vulnerable and isolated. We also began to gather a list of people in our community who needed support. This support was extended beyond our Church into our community as we advertised our response service on our local Facebook page, through our community council Facebook page, on our local council website and letting our local pharmacy know that we were on hand to help with prescription collection.

As word spread of the church’s response, the calls for help poured in did as did the calls from more people right across the community who wanted to volunteer to help. Volunteers came from all walks of life, all having a particular skill or ability to help in particular ways. Those who were unable to go out and shop for others would offer telephone support, others would help getting people connected online by talking through instructions on the phone.

Local community services began to direct people to our response team, and also offer their own services to those might need it. Our local yoga teacher continued to teach classes on Zoom, and instead of charging for her classes, asked those that came to make donations to the Church Local Mission Fund. In doing so we were able to direct these donations to support local charities and buy thank you gifts for those who were working hard to keep the community thriving; the Doctors Surgery, the pharmacy, the Co-op, the post office and newsagents. She also offered a much-needed relaxation yoga session to our local mental health peer support group at no cost, which is now meeting regularly on Zoom.

I am in the very privileged position to be co-ordinating the community response. Those who need support are directed to me and I then allocate a volunteer to help. I say I am privileged to be doing this because in doing so I have spoken to and learned from so many people, many of whom I had not previously met even though I have lived in this community for 10 years. What might start as a phone call to ask for a prescription to be collected, often becomes a time to get to know each other better. Lockdown stories are shared along with our fears and anxieties, things we are finding to do to help us cope, and usually we also share much laughter. At the end of every call I always feel we know each other a little bit more.

It really is an honour and so lovely to be part of the collective community response with so many other people.
I still have no idea what the many people I have spoken to since lockdown look like but feel I have made friends with people in my community that I didn’t know were there before.

In coordinating the response and being able to speak to so many people, I am constantly struck by the way in which the relationships between the volunteers and the person who needs support develops. I often hear of the lovely regular chat’s people are now having, the phone calls just to check up and see if someone needs anything, a regular shop turning into a regular delivery of a home cooked meal, or help with any IT issues over the phone they might be having so they can keep in “virtual” contact with family and friends.

One person said that they had never felt so much part of the community and another told me of the deepening relationships they were experiencing with people whom they would previously just have the briefest of exchanges with.

Several months into lockdown and the community response is still going strong. The initial frantic rush to get things in place and then to identify and respond to those who needed help has settled into a steady pace of its own, and the relationships and networks across our community continue to flourish.

As I look forward, I think about how much this lockdown period has shown me and how I want to hold on to those memories. I hope that we take many of those actions into the “new normal” – whatever that may look like.
I hope that we can continue to take the time to check up on each other and find out who needs help.

I hope that we continue to offer that help.
I hope that we will make the time to just chat with others in our community, to share our stories, our fears, and our laughter.

I hope that community relationships continue to develop and flourish in all circumstances and not just through times of crisis.

I also hope that every person who lives here feels and knows that they are a deeply valued part of this community. I hope that people will always be able to find someone here to reach out to for a chat, a hand of support or some time just to be able to laugh together.