EASILINK Community Transport: "We care about people and connecting them to the services that they need"
Easilink Community Transport has been delivering community transport services in the rural parts of Omagh, Strabane and Derry for over 20 years, providing approximately 30,000 individual passenger trips per year for people who don’t have access to public or private transport. We spoke to Easilink’s Chief Executive Paddy McEldowney, about how the organisation, it’s staff and clients have adapted to this unprecedented situation, ensuring that their core purpose remains unchanged.
He explained: “Our work has changed entirely since lockdown. We haven’t provided any passenger transport since mid-March. Initially this was very difficult for everyone in our organisation. Our focus had been on providing rural transport for those who don’t have access, our raison d’etre being ‘We care about people and connecting them to the services they need’. Very quickly we realised that even though we couldn’t take our clients to the services they needed, we could take some services to them.”
Adapting to change
The first thing Easilink introduced was a weekly “hello” call for regular clients, checking they were OK, signposting them to services and making sure they had support from family or friends while isolating. With office staff now working from home making over 400 phone calls per week, the feedback has been very positive.
“Initially the clients were surprised we decided to make the calls, telling us that they really appreciated that we were thinking about them and checking that they were OK. As the weeks have gone by, the clients are now looking forward to the phone call and the chat with a familiar voice. We plan to maintain this telephone contact with our clients for as long as they are isolating.”
When Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced the Department’s Food Parcels Service, Paddy approached the two local councils in the area – Derry City and Strabane District Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council – to offer assistance with distribution. Partnering with other community and voluntary organisations in the area to help with this work - including Sure Start and the British Red Cross in Omagh, and the Loughs Agency in Derry and Strabane – Easilink now delivers over 1,000 food parcels per week to community groups and individuals, utilising most of the capacity in their minibus fleet. Paddy says: “This is working really well, and we’re delighted to be building strong partnerships with these groups and with the local Councils, which will hopefully be maintained in the future.”
Another unlikely partnership that has developed very recently has been with TinyLife, the charity which supports premature babies and their families. Based in the Neo-natal unit in Altnagelvin Hospital, they were struggling to deliver breast pumps in the North West as part of their loan service. Following a request for help through Disability Action and the Community Transport network to collect and deliver the breast pumps, Easilink were able to enlist the help of their pool of Volunteer Car drivers and have recently completed their first collections.
TinyLife family support officer Meri with Mona from Easilink Community Transport setting off
Challenging and Uncertain Times Ahead
While Easilink have been very successful in adapting their services so they can continue to help those who are most in need, like many organisations they have grave concerns about their sustainability in the months ahead. With social distancing and COVID restrictions likely to be around for some time, it is difficult to see how some of their services can be delivered in the same way, if at all. And while Easilink’s core funders have been flexible and reassuring about their future funding and grants, Paddy believes they have probably lost around 30% of their total income, which is essential to the delivery of their services .
“We generate around 30% of our income from fares and our community Group Hire services but this has gone completely. Despite this, our operating costs remain the same and we have not been able to access any of the Government schemes for assistance. Unless we can secure significant additional resources in this financial year, I’m concerned for our survival. And if we do manage to survive, I’m concerned that we will not be in a position to meet the demand from the many rural residents who depend on us for access to the most basic of services."
This is the conflicting dilemma facing many organisations across the sector – how to continue to deliver much needed and vital services in communities, as well as surviving beyond the current crisis.
“I’m not sure our community transport service will ever get back to the way it was before the Coronavirus pandemic. Our service was at its best when we had a minibus full of happy, cheery people travelling together from a rural area to the shops, their luncheon clubs, catching up with friends, hearing the local news and living life to the full. If we have to restricted how many people can travel together, we will need additional resources – more vehicles, more drivers – just to maintain the service levels we were providing before COVID-19.”
Proud of committed staff and volunteers
Finally, despite these concerns and the prospect of an uncertain future, Easilink Community Transport will continue to do all it can to help people within their rural communities.
“We are immensely proud of our staff and volunteers for how committed and flexible they have been in introducing so many significant changes to the way we work, while focussing entirely on the impact we can have on our vulnerable clients.”
“In all of this upheaval, the only thing that hasn’t changed is we care about people and connecting them to the services they need.”
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