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Exeter Community Wellbeing – stronger together

Published: 29 May 2020

Exeter Community Wellbeing Stronger Together Matt and Karen Sylvester, community volunteers

Being a part of Exeter Community Wellbeing gives us the chance to use our skills to make a tangible difference in this time of crisis. We continue to connect people and groups requesting support with the local volunteers, organisations and funding opportunities that can provide it.

The helpline has now made well over 2,000 active connections. One of the great things that has come out of these daily interactions is the number of astonishing stories showing what can be achieved when dedicated individuals work together for their neighbourhoods.

Pennsylvania Good Neighbour Group

Matt and Karen Sylvester began their community support journey shortly before lockdown, when COVID-19 was on the horizon but hadn’t yet made a huge impact on our way of life.

Karen began by posting notes with her contact details through doors in case of people isolating in the near future. Her husband, Matt, was aware of the Devon and Cornwall Police ‘Good Neighbourhood Group’ scheme, so registered with them and began using his project management experience to arrange a local volunteer network and buddy framework in good time.

Matt, an NHS worker, and Karen, a self-employed artisan jeweller, now manage a network of 150 volunteers divided into several teams, handling up to 200 actions per day at their peak (they still work their day jobs, too). The group received grants from Exeter Community Wellbeing and Devon County Council, which they use to cover costs for fuel, PPE, fliers and lanyards. They also bought a set of bicycle brake blocks for a volunteer who had a lot of steep hills on his prescription round. One of the most active members is 70-years-old!

As the country went into ‘lockdown’, the Pennsylvania Good Neighbour Group was already underway, with posters going up around the ward (printed at home to begin with, now produced professionally and kindly printed by Pollards Prints). Over 5,000 leaflets were posted through doors advertising the group’s assistance, as well as a further 5,000 for TALKWORKS, the NHS wellbeing campaign.

In order to run the group and create a sense of community, a volunteers WhatsApp group and email account was set up, which got busier by the day. When Exeter Community Wellbeing began operations, 48 hours after lockdown was announced, the Group began taking daily referrals from us as well as three local pharmacies, with whom they have now built a strong relationship. As a result their dedicated volunteers have delivered well over 1,000 prescriptions across the city, with drivers racking up the miles both in cars and on bicycles.

The group also offers services including shopping trips, dog walking and welfare checks across the area. Thankfully, there has only been one incident of an isolated person being unreachable by phone and door knocking; after several unanswered attempts, Matt got in touch with the local police who went to check on the gentleman’s welfare and were able to assess if support was required. The gentleman was ill, but is doing fine now.

The Pennsylvania Good Neighbour Group also manage the St Katherine’s Priory Food Larder, supplied by Food Action and shopping donations from local residents and shops. This effort is led by Community Builder Ebbie Peters and Tim Payne of the Stoke Hill Community Association and operated by further volunteers.

The free larder practices strict infection control. People are met at the gate and a food box is packed bespoke for their household and brought out to them. In order to follow a robust hygiene protocol, Matt arranged face visors, donated by a local 3D printer. Matt said: “A lot of the people using the larder are feeling vulnerable; being able to see someone smiling at you is reassuring. There are also some people for whom English isn’t their first language and seeing someone’s whole face makes communication much easier.”

Matt and Karen see their role beginning to change as a large proportion of people in their neighbourhood are now ‘buddied up’. Matt said: “There has been a surge in community spirit and also the volunteer capacity we have. As we move towards the next stage of lockdown, we need to think about resilience planning, about how we are going to support people when our volunteers start going back to work and ensure the most vulnerable are passed on to the relevant support agencies. A lot of people have heightened anxiety because of this so we try to give practical advice on the best shops to visit or places to exercise.

"That’s one really important thing that we’ve tried to achieve with this group. We don’t just take calls and send a stranger to do their shopping. We buddy people up with neighbours. They build relationships, which gives them a sense of community safety and support, now and in the future.”

We are finding this to be the case across the city. Demand for connections is slowing, which is a testament to the fact that local networks, volunteers and buddies are well established and supporting people on an ongoing basis. Exeter Community Wellbeing, along with others, continue to operate to keep this community movement going.

Long term change

Some of the stories we have shared with you previously have encouraging updates, too. The Exeter Sew Volunteers have now produced over 2,000 items for local keyworkers, including scrubs, face masks and adapter headbands. Production is ongoing on sewing tables across the city.

Free pantries and sharing ‘libraries’ continue to operate city wide and adapt to the needs of their streets or areas. The organisers also play an important role in letting people know where they can find other support they may be looking for.

We have been informed that the Fairy Queen in the Pennsylvania area has charged her fairies to help look after all the little children who are getting ready to return to school, so there will not be as much activity at the magical stream from June.

There is, however, a general increase in activity, outdoor exercise and play, helped by the six Exeter Valley Parks and other outdoor spaces we are lucky to have in our city. South West Athletics Academy continues to provide fun activity boxes for local families and recently received a Sport England grant to support their work, which has barely missed a step, as they innovate to keep their community active with safety, fitness and fun in mind.

Stronger together

As the lockdown changes slightly, we are getting used to what the new guidelines are and how to navigate these. This isn’t an easy task, individually or collectively. There are a lot of questions and that will probably continue for a while as measures are altered according to the changing characteristics of the crisis. What hasn’t changed, what doesn’t change, is that our abiding aim as a community is to keep ourselves and each other safe and to support wellbeing in all its forms.

Remembering good hygiene and social distancing while we share smiles, tips, community spirit, resources and fun is still very much the game plan.

Exeter Community Wellbeing

To volunteer your time or to request support, get in touch with Exeter Community Wellbeing on 01392 265000. Lines open Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm.

For more information visit our website 


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