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Volunteer groups form to help the vulnerable

As the coronavirus lockdown begins to bite, Dan Carrier looks at the ways the whole community is pulling together

20 March, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

VOLUNTEERS have rushed forward to sign up to help elderly and vulnerable residents during the pandemic crisis and possible months of lockdown isolation.

Over-70s and residents with health conditions are most at risk from the coronavirus spread – and general government advice to stay indoors has been heightened for them. In response, new groups have formed across the borough to offer their help.

These include the Hampstead Volunteer Corp, set up by Kate Guy, an academic studying climate change policy at Oxford University. She has formed a committee with her husband and two neighbours – and since Saturday has enlisted 200 volunteers.

She said: “We are liaising with the five churches in our area and Age UK, as well as the council. We have spent the last few days getting a structure set up and dividing our area into small groups to cover different streets. We have been identifying people who may need help and making sure we know what to do. We are working closely with the council to ensure we feed into their plans and structure and do not double up anywhere, making  sure help goes where it is needed.”

Currently being run from Ms Guy’s Hampstead Village home, the Corps hope to move to a central location – perhaps Hampstead Community Centre – as a base in the coming weeks, depending on the logistics and the scale of what is needed becomes clearer. Plans include food drop-offs and telephone conversations to offer reassurance and combat loneliness and isolation. Ms Guy added: “We need to get the word out for more volunteers – we need young, healthy people who can give time. There is a sign-up sheet on our website.”

Meanwhile, the Highgate Newtown Community Centre has shut all of its services for people in the neighbourhood – and is planning to relocate onto the Whittington Estate, Dartmouth Park Hill, and set up a crisis centre in the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association’s office.

Centre director Andrew Sanalitro told the New Journal that staff and volunteers have been told they could no longer run their range of classes, workshops and get-togethers – so were now concentrating on helping the vulnerable in the Highgate Newtown area.

He said: “We are relocating there and the staff will be on new, pay-as-you-go phones so people can contact them. We are going to run a system of shopping for older people, topping up gas and electricity keys, getting newspapers – and making sure no one feels they are left on their own.”

The centre has also applied for a grant to set up a dedicated meals on wheels service, delivering hot food for those unable to cook. Schools in the neighbourhood will also be the focus of their aid efforts. Mr Sanalitro added: “Now the schools are closed, we will be working to help children who rely on free hot meals with food parcels.”

A food project established in Kentish Town is also offering support.

The Co-Operation Town project, run by volunteers from the Ingestre Road Community Centre in Kentish Town, plans to roll out aid to those most in need.

Shiri Shalmy, one of the organisers, set up the scheme in November last year to help provide low-cost food to families.

“There is a lot of free food going round. From supermarkets to their suppliers, there is so much waste, over-production, that can be redistributed,” she said. “We did not want to set up a foodbank, rather a co-op where food distribution is organised by its members, a community who work together. Members pay £3 a week, they come to meetings, do the work in receiving and then distributing the food.” As the coronavirus disrupts people’s routines, the co-op is planning to create “free food larders”, essentially a free shop, and will deliver directly to those in need.”

Ms Shalmy said: “We need some financial support and will need more volunteers to help sort and deliver produce. We also need more fridges and freezers to store it in. “The aim, now and always, is not just to support individuals, but to start building a sustainable, self-organised infrastructure (social, material and political) that will help see us through this crisis and, ideally, prevent the next one. Think solidarity, not charity.”

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