Community Hub Spotlight: Meeting with Marion at Cross Gates & District Good Neighbours Scheme

This blog series look at how the local community hubs in Leeds are working to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the city have access to support during the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus for today's blog is the Cross Gates and District Good Neighbours Scheme, which services the Cross Gates and Whinmoor area.

Marion Darlow manages the telephone befriending service for Cross Gates and District Good Neighbours Scheme (Cross Gates GNS). She isn’t a befriender herself but it is a role she would love to do when she retires. She has seen firsthand how the service can provide people with so much happiness and also how rewarding it can be to hear the stories of such interesting people. 

Before starting at Cross Gates GNS on March 7 2019, Marion had previously enjoyed working at Leeds Cancer Support as the Manager for the cancer support services. Here is Marion’s story:

“My role at Leeds Cancer Support was made redundant and I was looking for other jobs within the NHS. Although it was a managerial role, there was a lot of contact and that’s what I like. All my jobs have been people jobs.

Somebody said to me ‘have you thought about the third sector’ and I hadn’t really and so I looked on the Doing Good Leeds website. When I read about the role I thought it’s just everything I enjoy doing and I think it suited my skill set.  There was a variety of contact that meant I could use some of my management and leadership skills because it was project development and it was local.  So I came for the interview and luckily got the job and have never looked back.

I wish I had come [to the third sector] a long time ago - I thoroughly enjoy working here. I’m meeting lots of different people in lots of different circumstances.  We have a small team, a great team. We are very flexible and everybody is willing to do anything at any time. No one is really precious about their role [at the community hub], you just have to muck in whatever happens.

Marion Darlow

How many volunteers do you have?

We 116 volunteers altogether. We have just short of 1200 members. Within our 116 volunteers, we currently have 16 active befrienders. We had 21 befrienders in total over the project but some have either moved out of the area, have had health issues themselves or had caring commitments of their own, so they have had to just take some time off.

We are constantly looking to recruit new volunteers. That has been one of the benefits of working with partners during these unprecedented times - it’s given us access to a wider pool of volunteers, working with the Community Care Volunteers.  

 

Which partnerships do you work with?

We work with Leeds City Council (LCC), Helping Hands Leeds to help deliver the hampers and things. We are working with Swarcliffe Good Neighbours and Hope networks as well.

 

Were these already established relationships or have they come through the pandemic?

We are the community hub for Cross Gates and Whinmoor, so we work in and around that area rather than just Cross Gates. We work in Whitkirk and Temple Newsam covering a big area with a lot of members.

We have reached a lot more people through this [pandemic] and through working in the community hubs. People have been ringing the LCC helpline for hampers or ringing up for support with food, especially at the beginning when people couldn’t get [supermarket delivery] slots or shopping. Some people didn’t have anybody - no friends, no family and couldn’t do their own shopping. That’s when we set up the food bank to deliver the emergency hampers and then we would ring those people to check on their welfare and see if there was any other support they needed.

All our members received an initial welfare call when we had to shut down. These were all individual phone calls done by our wonderful team of dedicated volunteers who came into their own, as they always do. Each volunteer was given so many members to ring and from that first round [of calls] we identified 300 people who were more vulnerable and wanted a weekly 1:1 befriending call, so they are now getting that.

We have 300 members receiving weekly [befriending] phone calls made by staff and volunteers. We put in place any further support, so we have done referrals to adult social care, to mental health services, to health care professionals, district nurses, GPs, Carers Leeds, so things are still happening. People are still living their lives and we liaise with family, if there is family, and we will step in when we can and liaise with other agencies.

We have had people admitted to hospitals during this [pandemic]. It’s sad; it really is. Before, we would really help people to socialise, to network and interact with other people and so we were supporting people to get out. Now we are supporting people to stay at home safely and it“s very different, so we had to adapt very quickly.

VE Day Celebrations at Cross Gates GNS

The first few weeks were quite overwhelming - I think I would have to say, for me anyway, it definitely felt very overwhelming because we were trying to put things in place and even the other partnerships were trying to set things up quite quickly, so things were constantly reviewed and refined. It was a very steep learning curve but we managed. It soon started to run quite smoothly.

The phone calls are definitely a life line to people. People are saying when you ring “thank you so much for the call, I can’t tell you how much it has lifted me, how much it has meant.” The volunteers have said, they look forward to the phone calls and the chats as well. They are developing relationships with these people and so that’s probably going to have an impact beyond the pandemic.

I envisage that we are probably going to need more befriending volunteers. People have struck up relationships with people they are speaking to and now [members] are desperate to meet them face to face. They are probably shielding at the moment, so they’ve got to stay in, but once it’s over, a lot of people will be able to come to the Centre for activities. There will be a lot who still remain housebound we would be able to arrange for their befrienders to go visit them at home, which will be so lovely.

I can’t wait for that myself — to see people that I’ve been speaking to, to see the volunteers and I am thinking about maybe setting up a zoom meeting with the volunteers, so we can have a coffee and a sandwich just to see each other and chat.

Cross Gates GNS featured in the local papers

We have such good volunteers and one of our ladies is 80 and she is a mad keen Leeds fan. When I went to see her, she had so much memorabilia from years gone by. Her eyesight has deteriorated considerably, so she wasn’t able to watch tv but she listens the radio, although there is no sport on at the moment. We have a volunteer who’s a mad keen Leeds United fan as well, so when we can go back out, I think that will be a nice match.

Some of our other members are writing to each other. It is lovely to receive letters through the post and also to write. Writing a letter takes time and I think they are thoroughly enjoying the whole experience, thinking about it but actually doing it.

At the moment we are using all our own volunteers so they are all DBS checked and have gone through the process, so we know all our own volunteers. The volunteers who we haven’t seen face to face are those who have come through the Community Care Volunteering process. We know they meet all the criteria but haven’t met them. So Stephen [Bostridge, Volunteer Coordinator at the Hub] is co-ordinating the volunteer hubs to do all the hamper delivering, newsletter deliveries, prescriptions, food shopping and anything that anybody needs really.

I try and give the volunteers as much background as I know about the person they will be speaking to, such as their age, their family, do you like gardening, where did you go to school, did you work, etc. With the new referrals coming in, we may not know much about them, so I try and gleam a little bit from my [initial] conversation.  

From my perspective, it is just giving them lots of support, so they feel confident making those phone calls if they have never done that before. They can always ring me anytime and just talk through the phone call and obviously tell me if they have any concerns.

 

How do you see befriending calls will evolve?

That will be another challenge because a lot of the volunteers, the one’s that aren’t so vulnerable and shielding, won’t have time to provide the befriending phone calls that they are now. Again, I think just being aware of it.

If we get some nice weather again we could do some social distance visits. I think that is something we will do more of. We won’t be able to visit people in their homes but we can probably sit in the garden and at least have that human presence. We will be looking at recruiting more befrienders. I know a couple [of members] who have said they would like to continue [post pandemic], so that is encouraging.

Cross Gates GNS first zoom art class

What are your high points and lows points from this pandemic?

A highlight is the feedback from people who are really enjoying the phone calls and you can hear it in their voice. It’s not so much the words but saying, “thank you so much. It’s really made a difference, a lifeline and I really look forward to it”. Equally, the volunteers who have said, “this is as much for me as it is for them. I really look forward to ringing them and having a chat”. It’s a valuable service and people  are appreciating it, instead of “someone is ringing me today and ticking a box”. It’s about really looking forward to that phone call.

The low is not seeing people, not meeting the new volunteers, just speaking to them over the phone and not seeing the befrienders.  That is why I am thinking maybe setting up a zoom meeting but the [volunteers] haven’t all got computers.

As this [pandemic] continues, we have all noticed our [befriending] phone calls are getting longer with people because as they are quite low and really struggling now. It’s getting through the lows of the phone calls to try and end it on a high - have a laugh, make the client feel a bit uplifted. I give tips to our new volunteers on how to manage their phone calls and also some stock questions to help begin conversations.

It’s important to have boundaries, you can get very caught up. You are getting to know them very well. Some are bereaved and some have horrible things going on and you just want to make things better and they enjoy your company.

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge you are going to face going forward?

I think there is going to be a lot of unresolved grief following this and we have people that we were supporting who are bereaved. What we have set up now is a monthly bereavement support group online and that has been a lifeline to people. We have used our digital service so much during this [pandemic]. We are very lucky with the digital health hub and we have got a really good digital worker and a tech team.

I think there will be a lot of issues around mental health and anxiety and we are hearing that people are very low because [the pandemic] has been going on for so long. There is going to need to be a lot more support to help people get back and re-join society.

We will be looking at offering some mental health training for the staff and the volunteers. We have had some training before but getting some metal health training for all of us [would mean] we can support people better.

My own parents are really anxious and think the whole planet has changed. But even simple things like going shopping has changed so now they are saying, “well I can do my own shopping now but I just don’t know. I am hearing you have got to queue and there is a one way system”, so it“s reassuring people about that and then it will mean us going out physically and supporting them.

When we have new members, I have an initial phone call with them and add them to our database — see what support they need and put that in place. Then I go to their house and drop off a newsletter and our calendar because it includes photos of everybody, information about our trips and Xmas dos, activities, so they can see the sorts of things that we do [normally].

I think it“s just about being very flexible. We’ve got good systems and I think in any neighbourhood network in which you are working with people, you need to be able to adapt quickly to any situation. You can make plans but then the day turns on its head. We have got to plan around when we reopen and how we are going to do it - what activities would we do first?

I absolutely love working at Cross Gates and District Neighbourhood Network. I really enjoy my role and I am very proud and privileged to work with such committed and caring people and supporting people in the community. We are getting phone calls and emails from families that live in Japan and Canada because their families live out there but their parents and grandparents are here in Cross Gates .

I love the variety [of this role], I love people, I love working with people.

Socially distanced team meeting at Cross Gates GNS

 

Volunteers can offer practical support for vulnerable people (such as shopping deliveries, preparing meals, making check-in phone calls) or can sign-up as an informal volunteer to help within their own neighbourhood in more general ways. The Leeds City Council helpline is available so that people in need of support can call 0113 378 1877 to be matched with a local volunteer who can help. 

The Community Care Volunteering Programme is not currently accepting applications from new volunteers but there are still lots of other volunteering opportunities available in Leeds. To find out more, please visit https://doinggoodleeds.org.uk/i-want-to-volunteer/

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