Leeds Covid volunteers made 'absolutely huge' contribution to city's pandemic response
The power of volunteering to make a real difference in communities has been demonstrated time and again throughout the coronavirus pandemic - from making befriending calls and manning helplines to delivering food parcels and collecting prescriptions.
Whether giving just an hour or two a week or devoting whole days to lending a hand, the network of volunteers across Leeds has played a crucial role in allowing people to shield or self-isolate, in easing lockdown loneliness and in helping people to survive the many challenges of the past year.
Many had been freely giving their time and skills to the city's vital charities and community organisations long before anyone had heard of Covid-19, but thousands more answered the call to join the Community Care Volunteering (CCV) programme set up by Leeds City Council in partnership with Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL) last March.
Andrina Dawson, VAL's co-ordinator for volunteering, said: "We've really seen people coming forward, understanding what resource they have that might make a difference. Sewing face masks or 'I drive a van, do you need any help?' It's just been really amazing to see that."
In the week before the first national lockdown began on March 23 last year, older people and those who were classed as vulnerable were told they should shield. The immediate concern was how those being told to stay apart from the wider population would cope.
Chris Hollins, who chairs VAL, said: "We began a recruitment drive straight away for volunteers. We had a huge response - there were 8,000 people who responded. We couldn't actually take them all to fill the pandemic roles."
Volunteers were each assigned to one of 27 Community Care Hubs created across Leeds as part of the city-wide volunteering programme, bringing together the army of new recruits alongside charities and community organisations, large and small, that were already working at a neighbourhood level.
Reflecting on that collective third sector response, Mr Hollins said: "It's been huge and across the board - and they have made the difference. It's made it possible for people in Leeds who needed to isolate to do that.
"As part of the big team effort that's gone on, whilst over the course [of the pandemic] lives have been lost, lives have been saved by volunteers. They've made an absolutely huge contribution. There's no doubt about that."
Alongside the formal volunteering, there have also been countless examples of people making new connections with their neighbours and looking out for each other.
Miss Dawson said: "We've always known volunteering makes a huge difference and volunteers are critical to the delivery of our services, but informal volunteering, where you just kind of help your neighbour - sweeping the snow outside someone's house - is so crucial."
When the pandemic began, she took on the role of supporting recruitment for the CCV programme and at each of the hubs.
"What we've seen with the charities is they've stepped outside their traditional remit and started delivering services to the wider communities," she said. "We know that there's an appetite to continue so the work we're doing at VAL is looking at local anchor organisations."
The idea is that each area in the city will have its own small network of charities and community organisations that collaborate on projects, swap ideas and share resources.
In doing so, VAL hopes to build on the valuable connections that have been developed in this past year and create a long-lasting legacy of volunteering and community spirit.
The organisation is also keenly aware that many of those who volunteered before the pandemic are among those who have had to shield and will be preparing to get back out into society as the vaccination rollout continues and lockdown measures are eased.
"We really need to use volunteering as a way to get people reconnecting safely," Miss Dawson said. "Hopefully we'll see those who've volunteered in the past coming back and some more face-to-face roles because people really missed that.
"One of the main motivations for volunteering is around human connection. You want to actually engage with communities and see the difference you make.
"If you've volunteered in the past and you've had to shield, maybe it's time to think about returning to your volunteering because we want to you see again."
The team at VAL will be working to support those returning volunteers and first-time volunteers, as well as the charities that have been unable to operate due to restrictions.
One of the key tools for this is the Leeds Volunteering Platform, an online portal at www.doinggoodleeds.org.uk that is hosted by VAL's Volunteer Centre Leeds project and powered by Be Collective.
Free for groups in Leeds to advertise their voluntary positions, it is an easy way for people looking to get involved in volunteering to find out what opportunities are available and make an application.
Miss Dawson said: "The great thing about the platform is you can create a profile on there and keep an eye out for vacancies that arise."
The VAL team also supports people who may face barriers to using the website, particularly those with specific needs, really small groups or those who find technology challenging.
Miss Dawson said: "As soon as we're allowed, we're going to be reopening the volunteer centre. We've moved it to Kirkgate Market in the Food Hall.
"What's important to us is we're engaging people from marginalised communities and they're not left out from volunteering. People can come in and be guided through the process, looking at the availability and what's on there."
Providing that practical support for volunteers and third sector organisations is the very reason for VAL's existence, so being able to support the tremendous voluntary response during the pandemic is something of which Mr Hollins is very proud.
"The team at VAL have really stepped up to the mark and done way beyond what you could ever have expected from them," he said.
"Some have had to isolate and they have been keeping all the back office jobs going. Those things often get forgotten about but they've all made a huge contribution to the stuff that's been going on."
When the time is right, he hopes a way can be found for the city or the country to come together to thank everyone who has been part of it - the big charities, the smaller neighbourhood groups and all those people "just getting together, being neighbourly, doing things for people in their community".
Visit www.doinggoodleeds.org.uk to find out more about the latest volunteering opportunities in the city.
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