Extending the hand of support and friendship to Ulster’s rural communities

Today, our Changed Lives series examines how community groups and organisations have worked to deliver services to help rural people left feeling more isolated than ever due to the pandemic. One such project is Across the Hedgerow, a befriending service delivered by Rural Support in partnership with the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster. By LAURA MCMULLAN

Wednesday, 21st October 2020, 6:00 am

Rural Support, which is based in Cookstown, is a charity that was set up to offer support to the local farming community through its special helpline, which offers a listening and signposting service for farmers and their families.

From financial and emotional issues, to physical and mental health concerns, the staff have been on hand since the inception of the organisation in 2002 to listen and give advice and help.

However, as helplines and volunteers coordinator Deborah Gavin says, when Covid-19 emerged back in March, that volume of calls unsurprisingly spiked.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“When the restrictions first hit, our helpline numbers increased dramatically,” she said.

“There were queries regarding Covid and the effects of that on farm businesses and people’s lives, but there were also people calling who were feeling lonely and isolated. Farming itself, and living in rural farming areas, can be isolating anyway, but when coronavirus hit, and even less people were out on the roads or visiting people, we saw our whole operation increase.”

But one morning, as the Rural Support team were holding one of their regular meetings, the idea of the Across the Hedgerow project was formed.

“We felt that we needed to have something specifically for people who were isolated, so that they could be contacted whenever it suited them, be that once a month or once a week, just to have a chat and talk about how they were feeling, with someone who had similar interests and who could give them that bit of company. So we approached the YFCU and asked them if they would like to join in with us.”

Deborah says there were a number of reasons for asking this organisation to come on board.

“We felt they would be perfect as volunteers; they all come from rural and farming backgrounds, they have that interest in the farming community, and we had a great intake of people wishing to volunteer their services. We have around a dozen volunteers from clubs from right across the Province, and our own volunteers as well.

“We made sure that the Young Farmers got the same training in listening and so on as our own volunteers get, so that in case perhaps someone mentioned something on a phone call, it would trigger that alert.

“What we did then when we had referrals was match them up with the volunteer that we felt would be most appropriate, whether that was one of our own, or one of the Young Farmers. And then it was basically decided between the volunteer and the how often they would keep in contact; they were left to build up a relationship.”

As Deborah explains, it’s that similarity in lifestyles and interests that strengthens the bond and the trust between the service user - the farmer - and the volunteer.

“Farming life is so different from the lives of those of us who aren’t farmers; they live and breath it, so it’s great for them to have that connection with the volunteers. If you take the likes of an elderly gentleman living alone, he’d have lost all social outlets, such as the marts when they were closed, and so really would have appreciated the contact from our volunteers. It gave them something to look forward to.”

Across the Hedgerows service will continue into the winter months; in fact, Deborah believes it will be needed then more than ever. “The dark nights are coming in, so people might not be out and about as they were before. And that gives them more thinking time.”

The church group which helped in ‘Abundance’

Thirty-six-year-old Jolene Glass, from Portadown, is leader of the youth and children’s ministries at a church which was founded by her parents in 1995 - Lakeside Family Church.

Pastors Joe and Laura Corry founded the Portadown-based church, which attracts members from Craigavon, Portadown, Lurgan, and further afield.

Jolene also preaches and organises ladies’ conferences, and in 2018 she had a vision and a dream about opening Cafe Abundance, where members of the community could come in and avail of food and coffee at no set cost.

She tells us how important this venture proved to be two years later when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“We can all agree that no-one foresaw this happening, and as schools closed, people were furloughed from work and the vulnerable had to self-isolate; we knew it was time to open Café Abundance and to reach into our community to help those who were struggling. Within one week of contacting social services, local schools and a door to door leaflet drop in Craigavon, we received completed referral forms from family intervention teams, schools and the vulnerable within the community. Every Friday evening, we cook hot meals and make desserts with the help of a team of volunteers from our church. Each Saturday morning a team of delivery drivers from the church deliver these free meals personally to those on our referral list. Along with the meals each week, a little leaflet pack, especially written by one of our church ladies, is supplied with the meals along with tea bags, milk and sugar.

“With a different theme each week about the love and goodness of God, we are also witnessing to them spiritually as well as physically. We are also in the process of gathering contacts and provisions to provide food parcels alongside the hot meals, in order to help ease the financial burden lockdown has brought to many people.

“We have received fantastic support from many local businesses in the area, as well as our five-star rating sticker after our inspection from our local authority Food Standards Agency.

“People have been truly touched by the thought and heart behind the service supplied through Café Abundance. One lady in particular sent a card thanking us for supplying hot meals and desserts, as she lives alone and is housebound. She also looks forward to the doorstep conversation with our delivery drivers each week.”

‘It was a case of doing the humanitarian thing’

One group who worked very hard to deliver food and services to rural people living in parts of Mid Ulster was the Sperrin Cultural Awareness Association (SCAA).

Established in 2011, they work with communities spanning from Garvagh to Randalstown from their hub in Magherafelt.

Their main aim is to promote community cohesion, create an understanding of cultural traditions and empower disaffected and marginalised young people.

They have worked with the International Fund for Ireland through two of its programmes - the Peace Impact Programme, which looks to address some of the most sensitive, complex and challenging issues within areas where there have been low levels of engagement in peace building, and the Personal Youth Development programme, which works with the most at risk 16-25 year olds. They often have poor mental health, been in criminal justice system, involved in paramilitaries, or have complex family backgrounds.

However as Darren Richardson, who is the organisation’s community development manager, explained, its volunteers all found themselves carrying out roles that were more “reactive” than the normally “proactive” ones they were accustomed to as a body.

Aware that isolation and mental health is an issue, they teamed up with Impact NI so they could signpost those who needed support. They also delivered a range of OCN accreditations and packs for vulnerable people within the community, and were indeed one of the leading partners in the area co-ordinating efforts to help at the height of the pandemic.

“Our background work is peace building and community development, but all that work had frozen, and we had shifted to providing advice and food and other physical resources to the community,” Darren said.

“I suppose for us as an organisation this brought a lot of challenges in terms of collaboration etc., and how we co-ordinated a positive response and approach to it. So we had to look at the stakeholders in the community and evaluate who was in need and who was vulnerable, then look at who we could partner with in order to make the greatest impact.

“So we looked at existing resources like community groups, food banks and local agencies. We also availed of grants through the likes of the Community Foundation. We ended up with a team of nearly 50 volunteers, and we did food parcels, care packs, and got involved with a group in Randalstown called Impact Network NI, who work in the fields of public and mental health.”

Another important project that Darren’s team was involved in was a three-month one at Kilronan School in Magherafelt, which saw them power wash the facility.

“We recognised the mental health aspect relating to the young children here too,” says Darren.

Indeed, the feedback, he affirms, that the group has received in relation to their work has been positive.

“So many new relationships have been built not only within, but between communities. People’s colour, race, religion, orientation or gender didn’t come into question it was a case of assessing the need, assessing the vulnerable user, addressing it, and doing the humanitarian thing.”

Support from Ballymena Freemasons

A group of Freemasons from five lodges in the Ballymena area came together to donate a whopping £4,000 worth of goods to people in need in the local area - equating to the delivery of 400 bags.

Organised by local Freemason, Alistair Wade and his wife Flo, the husband and wife duo said they were inundated with support for their initiative.

“We decided we needed to do something to help those in need in our community and were delighted to receive a donation of £2,000 from the Ballymena Masonic Social Club and the Ballymena Masonic Hall trustees,” Alistair explained.

“We now have had more donations flooding in from a total of five Freemason halls, and private donations also bringing monies raised up to £4,000.”

The bags were handed out to a combination of older Freemasons who may be at home shielding, widows of Freemasons whom the organisation continuously supports, and those within the community struggling with life during the pandemic.

One such family is the Gilmour family, who have been shielding with their daughter Olivia, who suffers from a heart problem.

Mum Diane said: “It was so thoughtful of the Freemasons to be thinking of others like ourselves when life is so difficult for everyone.

“The groceries, which included both food and cleaning products, apart from being practical, were a lovely thought, and it is nice to know that others are thinking of us.

“Life is challenging and difficult for us generally as we care for our daughter, but even more so in a pandemic!”

Flo Wade added: “This project has been a great success.

“Life has changed for us all, and none of us know what lies ahead, so having the Freemasons providing their support to this project means we have a network of individuals who are putting the needs of others at the forefront.

“We hope the project will grow and we welcome any and all further support that can be offered to make sure our friends and neighbours are cared for.”