This post is part of a series of regular blogs to support communities and neighbourliness. Here we will share good news stories, positive practice and innovative ways communities in Leeds are connecting.
As a newbie to an organisation you are often asked to write a little reflection about the first few weeks in your post, how you are settling in, a bit about yourself and what you have learned. I have only been at VAL for 10 days and feel like I could write a book already (don’t worry I won’t)!
But especially in response to Mick Ward’s brilliant blog piece about ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) so evident in Leeds today, ‘Physically Distanced but Socially Connected’ , I wanted to just make a few observations about my first week.
I have always taken an asset-based approach to my work - why should we label somebody as being helpless just because they need help? People can offer many gifts that can go unseen as soon as they are labelled ‘in need’. We are seeing volunteers who are self-isolating helping out from their homes, utilising their skills and helping others, with examples of mutual support across neighbourhoods all over the city.
There is an asset-based approach to community work that starts by looking at gifts that people can offer, describing gifts of The Head, Heart and The Hands. Everyone has a gift to give, and, especially in times to come, we will need the gifts of others to pick us back up or keep us going. I have seen so many examples already proving the whole of Leeds is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
For me, at the heart of the critical work going on, the centre cogs, are the 33 voluntary sector organisations that VAL and Leeds City Council are helping respond to individuals and families in their areas. Thirty three new community hubs have sprung up overnight, working together to support neighbourhoods and each other.
There is a huge mix and variety of Third Sector Organisations that have volunteered to take the lead and coordinate the volunteer response. Already I have spoken to some of the most amazing people and learnt more about how their organisations work and how quickly they have adapted to the situation, drawing in years of partnership work, trust and, when needed, favours too. They have drawn together a huge network of people and resources to respond. I feel humbled by the scale and passion on the operation.
And it is not just immediate needs of foods and medicines that the hubs are working to meet. The level of compassion and caring that is offered in these hard times is so important too. When the networks are being pushed to the maximum of their capacity, they still have the resolve and creativity in them to recognise the need to not just meet ‘essential’ requests. Examples of giving out Easter eggs, including a word search or some flowers in the food parcels does make you question ‘what exactly is an essential item?’ We need to look after our mental well-being along with physical needs.
Here at VAL we have recruited over 7,000 people and inducted almost 4,000 across the city to become Community Help Volunteers. At the same time the city has mobilised on a grass roots level, with Mutual Aid groups, Facebook groups, Street What’s App groups and neighbours supporting each other on a local level (guidance about informal volunteering can be found in VAL’s Being a Good Neighbour Pack). Our communities are already strong and resilient places, not just surviving but thriving by relying on and supporting each other in turn, and, in doing so reducing the amount of people needing formal help.
This is may sound a bit strange, but we have got to look at what gifts Covid-19 has brought us: not what can be achieved despite it, but what we have and can achieve because of it. That might just be feeling blessed to spend time with your children at home, time to reflect, time to take up a hobby, but it might be skills and confidence gained by volunteering either formally or informally, or it might be a newly established respect for the NHS, recognising the value of all ‘key workers’ and your friends and neighbours.
I don’t think neighbourhoods will ever be the same again after this, and although we might have traumatic times ahead, I truly believe we will all come out of this changed people, for the better.