By Sean Meleady

In Norwich, as in many other parts of the country, mutual aid groups set up in local communities through Facebook and Whatsapp have been helping people through the Covid-19 crisis in Norwich. These groups have been particularly important for the elderly, vulnerable, single parents and those asked to shield themselves by staying at home.

They have been invaluable for those unable to go to the shops, as other members of the group have volunteered to do their shopping for them. In some cases other members of the community in mutual aid groups have helped providing facemasks and children’s clothes, while small businesses and charities have offered home delivery services of food and other essentials.

George Thornton, a member of the Norwich Covid-19 Mutual Aid group (founded by Monika Szafałowicz and John Rice – you can hear more about their initiative here) has been repairing dusty computers in order to donate them to people in the NR2 area of the city. His experiences reflect the digital divide exacerbated by the lockdown:

“I’ve found it rewarding but also extremely revealing in terms of the poverty that the most oppressed groups in society are facing right now. One laptop went to a migrant family with two children trying to revise for their GCSEs with only one smartphone between them in the house. Another has gone to a family without any smartphone or PC at all meaning that Universal Credit and job applications have been impossible for them during Covid”.

This is a truly intergenerational movement

Tuckswood-based single parent Sarah Pearson was very active before the crisis – she was a Parkrun director for Junior Parkrun and set up the Pace of Mind running club. However, after being asked to shield she was unable to even do her regular shop. She has been relying on friends and staff from the City of Norwich School, which one of her children attends, to do her shopping using school vouchers.

“I’ve got three teenage boys so they eat a lot. That’s been surprisingly hard, you don’t realise how much you rely on the fact that you can just nip to the shops. I can’t just magic things up and that has been quite tricky”.

Local grassroots charities and community groups have also been providing valuable support. One example is the Norwich Soup Movement, who usually run an on-street soup kitchen for the homeless and rough sleepers in the Haymarket. However in March the group faced a blow when Norwich City Council tore down the stall they use for serving food in order to stop the homeless congregating there during the pandemic.

Since then the group have continued serving those in need, but have had to rely on donations as well as the hard work of the volunteers under difficult circumstances. Claire Ames, a member of NSM, explains:

“We’ve had to radically change the way we provide food to the homeless since Covid 19 happened and the council in their wisdom removed the stall in the Haymarket where we served four nights a week. It’s been hugely stressful for everyone involved, especially as one food provider dropped out and we had to raise another night’s worth of food weekly using meagre funds.”

Another volunteer group, Thorpe Helping Hands, have been helping local residents in Thorpe Hamlet and Thorpe St Andrew through a ‘Check and Chat’ service that makes telephone contact with those who are self-isolating. Katie, coordinator at Thorpe Helping Hands, describes the service:

“We already have five volunteers who regularly ring 10 residents in Thorpe St Andrew and Thorpe Hamlet. The lockdown means that many folk are self-isolating, so they have been stuck at home since March, with very little human contact, which can be depressing and worrying. We can collect shopping or prescriptions for them but this befriending service is a real bonus on top of those errands. Our volunteers ring for a weekly chat and help keep the residents’ spirits up. We can check all is well and build a friendly rapport.”

A Thorpe Helping Hands volunteer preparing food parcels at Pilling Park Community Centre. Credit: Sean Meleady/Thorpe Helping Hands

Helping Hands have also teamed up with Pilling Park Community Centre in nearby Thorpe Hamlet in order to help with the delivery of food and other essential supplies to around 90 local households. Parcels donated by local companies as well as individuals are allocated at the Community Centre in Pilling Park Road on Fridays by volunteer packers, before being dispatched by delivery drivers. Helping Hands use church newsletters, the local press and radio in order to raise awareness of their work, as well as delivering 8,000 leaflets to residents in the NR1 and NR7 postcodes to identify vulnerable people in the community who need their support.

This is a truly intergenerational movement. Older volunteers providing assistance to young families are working alongside teenagers who write to elderly people in care homes. A partnership has been developed with the Lionwood group of schools – nursery, infant and junior – and plans are in the works to provide activities for children during the school holidays.

Several other groups have played important roles in the Norwich community response to the pandemic. The Pantry, based at Gateway Vineyard Church in Trowse, is an emergency food and household items project. Local residents are able to request parcels on a self-referral basis via e-mail. They are then sent an e-mail with the next delivery slot and the choice of receiving food, baby care products or household essentials. Project volunteers help at the Trowse Sports Hall headquarters packaging and sorting products, while others assist from home answering e-mails. Volunteers also collect donations from their own communities and act as delivery drivers, distributing supplies to those in need. In the north of the city, Hellesdon Helping Hands offer food delivery, organised by drivers with verified ID, and a ‘nattering ‘ service for those unable to leave home and who are missing out on regular social interaction.

Grassroots community groups have responded with remarkable speed and compassion to the challenges of supporting one another during the pandemic. This community spirit has become a real source of hope for the future in a time of crisis.

Featured image credit: Sean Meleady/The Pantry

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