Keeping the lines of communication open during COVID-19

29 May 2020 Donna Semple    Last updated: 29 May 2020

COVID-19 has meant that many older and vulnerable people and carers are now more socially isolated than ever.  A dedicated cohort of volunteers in Newry Mourne and Down are breaking the silence, and talking to those who have no-one to talk to.

One of the many services being provided to the older and vulnerable people in the Newry Mourne and Down area at this time are the Good Morning and Good Day Good Carer services, run by the Confederation of Community Groups (CCG) based in Ballybot House, Newry.  These services are key elements of the wider community response.  When callers from the area call the COVID-19 Helpline run by Advice NI, they are offered support and companionship in the form of a telephone call through one of the services.  The Good Morning Service is aimed at older people living by themselves, while Good Day Good Carer gives vital support to the community of full-time carers across the Southern Health & Social Care Trust area.

Changes to how the services are delivered

The services are usually run from a purpose-built call centre in Ballybot House.  That call centre now lies quiet, but all over the area volunteers continue to make the calls, keeping vital lines of communication open.  Spread out all over Newry and Mourne, the volunteers are now in their own homes, making calls every day to the people who need it most.

"It's strangely quiet now, I had to go into Ballybot House last week to bring a laptop to a volunteer, and I could see inside the centre, no volunteers were there but the screens were on and calls were being made remotely.  One volunteer was in Newcastle, others in Newry City, another signing in from Crossmaglen.  The volunteers have responded to the challenge so well, and it's a credit to them how they have continued to provide the service which is even more crucial that it was in the past,” explains Conor Keenan, Joint Project Co-ordinator.

“Our close partners and colleagues in Good Morning Down, based in Downpatrick have also done a great job led by Linda Baker, in adapting their services to the current climate.  With their efforts, we are able to provide the Good Morning telephone service across the entire Newry, Mourne and Down area,” adds Pat Quinn, Joint Project Co-ordinator.

Conor explained how the service users have changed: “Without doubt, the profile of our normal service users has changed.  Isolation always existed in our community; this crisis has brought that to more people than ever before.  We have younger people on our service, and our calls are getting much longer, as with many of our users, we are their only regular avenue of contact.”

 

“The wee call means so much.  It makes my day, especially now with no-one calling, and the family away a bit.  It makes all the difference.”

“I had no idea the service even existed.  It’s amazing to know about the things are out there, that you never heard of before.”

“The Good Day call is great as the volunteers take so much time with you.  Many of the services are pressured and you understand their situation.  But I never had a volunteer tell me that it was time to go”.

“The call services we provide act like a bit of a community mail sorting office,” says Development Manager, Laurence Bradley.  “We receive the mail in the forms of phone calls through the two services, and we direct them on where necessary to the relevant bodies, agencies and groups.  I think that has always been one of the key strengths of the Confederation, to fully utilise the skills and abilities that exist within our community, and to do it quickly and effectively for the common good.  There’s no doubt, we are handling a lot more mail at the current time!”

Partnership working and support

Pat Quinn “The local communities and businesses have responded brilliantly to the current times.  Our IT provider Arcadian IT and Aidan Mallon deserve a lot of credit for allowing us to transfer our service to one delivered online with volunteers working from home.  Without this support, we are unable to provide any of our services.”

The Merchant Bistro are providing a free cooked dinner to 100 homes in the Newry area.  CCG linked in with them early on to ensure that some of the more vulnerable service users could be looked after.  Conor says “Liam, Brenda and the team at the Merchant deserve great credit for this tremendous generosity.  We were also able to provide volunteer drivers to deliver meals to those unable to collect them.”

“Maura McCourt is a great figure in the Newry area, from her bakery and sandwich shop in Patrick Street, she is a great listening ear in the community, and lets us know of the people who need our services,” added Pat.

Laurence on support from funders “Our funders in the form of the Southern Health & Social Care Trust, Newry Mourne and Down District Council and the Heath and Social Care Board have been very understanding of our circumstances, but have worked with us to solve common problems.  At the same time, they fund us to provide the services, so we had to think on our feet and bring our volunteers with us.  We have had a strong history of youth volunteering as well, so having a younger generation of volunteers involved made the technological shift an easier one as well.”

The Southern Trust, in formulating a comprehensive list of help to people, offered the Good Morning call as key social support to callers to the COVID-19 Community Helpline.  Laurence explained:

“This was a big challenge for us, and we have received around an extra 90 users in the last few months alone through the Covid-19 helpline.  But for years, we have built up the projects with strong foundations, and the volunteers have adapted brilliantly, and the services are shining as a result.”

Additional funding and support from the Community Foundation, Southern Age Well Partnership and others has allowed CCG to work with their community groups to respond to emerging needs and has also allowed staff and management to modernise to the current climate.

Challenges and positives

"I think we are all aware the challenges that we are facing are difficult, but they pale in comparison to what others are facing,” said Conor.  “I have cleared out my bedroom to set up my home office, and I was having a difficult day trying to get things done, keep two small kids entertained, and allow my wife to get her own work done as well.  That afternoon I took a call from a heartbroken woman who had lost her brother a few days previous, due to the restrictions he was buried in an empty graveyard, with no-one there to say goodbye.  That sort of call snaps you out of any self-pity fairly quickly."

The volunteers hear amazing tales as well, of working lives in Canada, and careers in long forgotten professions like seamstresses, linen workers and telegram delivery boys.  Fiona a volunteer says:

“We hear some amazing stories.  People have lived such interesting lives. There are tough calls, but on the whole it’s a privilege to be able to talk to these people.  It’s just a shame we can’t capture all this magic, and put it in some sort of book someday!”

Another volunteer Jackie is delighted that she can continue to volunteer from home:

"I have a few health issues and as such, I wasn’t able to come in to Ballybot so much, I felt I was missing out a bit.  Now with the new setup, I can work from home, it’s great.  I miss the craic and the banter with the volunteers, but the Whatsapp group will have to do for now!”

The future

Over the next weeks and months, the Good Morning and Good Day projects will keep the lines of communication open and the phone ringing, until finally people start to hear their door bells ring again and see a friendly face across from them.

Pat advises other groups to embrace fully the technological changes and use them to your benefit.

“No doubt, change was coming down the line to our sector, the crisis has speeded things up by a few years, which is some ways was no bad thing. I would advise any group to have a firm technological base with good expert support. That allows you to encourage your volunteers, service users and staff to embrace tech and online working. We have been able to deliver a number of training events and supports online for our volunteers, and in the future hope to add face to face video calling to our services as well.”

We can all appreciate the value of a good chat at this time – and these volunteers are doing their bit to keep the conversations going.

 

If you would like to learn more about the projects, visit http://www.ccgnewrycommunity.org/good_morninggood_neighbour_service and http://www.ccgnewrycommunity.org/good_day_good_carer

You can also contact the co-ordinators Pat Quinn [email protected] or Conor Keenan [email protected]

donna.semple@nicva.org's picture
by Donna Semple

Governance and Charity Advice Officer

[email protected]

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