Julia from Great Dunmow, a retired practice nurse of 27 years, joined St Clare Hospice as a volunteer towards the start of 2020.
Julia completed her Bereavement Café Facilitator training in February, just as the coronavirus outbreak began to unfold, but that hasn’t stopped her finding all sorts of ways to make a difference and to keep caring for local people who need it most. She decided to complete our Compassionate Neighbours training during lockdown, via video webinars, and has been supporting people by telephone who are socially isolated and shielding.
Here Julia shares her story of volunteering on the frontline of Covid-19.
Q: What led you to volunteer with St Clare Hospice?
A: I recently retired from my role as a nurse in a GP practice, and I am also a bereavement counsellor, and I was looking to find a way to use my skill sets to support local people through loss and bereavement. That is when I found out about St Clare’s Bereavement Café project to connect people in my local area who are experiencing grief with others.
Along with my friend, Pam, I took part in the Bereavement Café Facilitator training at the start of 2020 – with the plan being to work with Sally, St Clare’s Community Engagement Manager, to set up a new group in the local area around Stansted and Takeley. Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak began to take hold at this time meaning the new group has been put on pause – but I have been staying in regular contact with the other facilitators and there have been huge developments during lockdown to take the project online.
Now, more than ever, bereaved people will be feeling socially isolated – and being cut off from their usual routine can make grieving even harder. Sally has made an incredible effort to successfully take the Bereavement Cafés online during lockdown – and these are so important for people right now.
The team at St Clare also secured funding to launch a Bereavement Helpline in June, which is a much-needed resource and will be a lifeline for local people, both during lockdown and beyond. The online bereavement communities and bereavement helpline are certainly developments which I will be trying to cascade and share locally through voluntary groups and my church.
I am not normally very good with technology, but the lockdown has forced us all to become more digital – and I now feel quite familiar with Zoom because of all the meetings we have been doing! Zoom has been a fantastic tool to keep all of the volunteers connected, and to make sure we are supporting each other too.
Q: What volunteering have you been doing with St Clare during lockdown?
A: With the new Bereavement Café on hold, I decided to see if there was any other way I could support St Clare Hospice. That is when I heard about the Compassionate Neighbours scheme, which supports socially isolated and lonely people, and decided to take part in the online training.
Stacey, the Compassionate Neighbours Manager, adapted the training programme so that we could take part via Zoom and I completed the course in March along with a number of other people.
As so many more people are feeling socially isolated and cut-off because of the lockdown, the Compassionate Neighbours project formed a partnership with other West Essex health providers and Stacey asked if I would be willing to phone people as a volunteer on behalf of a GP surgery to ask them about their mental and emotional wellbeing.
I think this is a great example of partnership working, as the Compassionate Neighbours project stepped in to support the wider network of health and social care providers. It is good to see different organisations coming together to work as a team during this pandemic, to make sure we support the people who need it most.
Stacey brings such dedication and experience to the training and implementation of Compassionate Neighbours, and I personally feel how lucky the Hospice is to have both Stacey and Sally – two such forward-thinking and caring people, working for the good of isolated and bereaved people.
I jumped at the chance to put my Compassionate Neighbours training into practice and, along with another St Clare volunteer called Liz who is a retired GP, we were given around 60 people to phone.
The people we called were all having to be ‘shielded’ because of the coronavirus, and as you can imagine, some of them were feeling very lonely and frustrated about not being able to leave their house, or even go to work.
One thing that we have found with every single person, is that they are so grateful for our phone call. The most important thing is that we are ringing to ask ‘How are you doing?’ and that is what means the most to people.
Some people I have spoken to have been finding it very hard being locked down and shielding, and unable to see others. The effect that isolation has on mental health and wellbeing is very big.
Many of those that I have called are younger people, who are caring for children with disabilities or conditions who therefore need to be shielded. Sometimes they really wanted to talk, and just to have someone genuinely ask how they are coping means a lot to them. There were some very tragic stories that I spoke with people about, and it was eye-opening to see the need of people in other communities near to me in West Essex.
My plan is to carry on with these supportive wellbeing phone calls for as long as I am needed. I look forward to continuing to support local people over the phone – and to being matched as a Compassionate Neighbour with a community member, and meeting them in person when it is safe to do so again.
Q: What other volunteering have you been doing during the coronavirus outbreak?
A: As well as volunteering with St Clare, I have also been supporting a local project called Care for your Neighbours which has been organised by my John and Helen Wright from St Mary’s church in Great Dumow as a response to the outbreak. They did an outstanding job to start a volunteering group in lockdown, in unchartered territory, and I was eager to support their initiative.
Through the Care for your Neighbours project I have been doing prescription runs – collecting scripts for people who can’t leave their homes, and delivering their medications back to them. Many of these people are isolated and shielding in their homes in outlying villages around Great Dunmow.
Our church was very quick to mobilise volunteers and get organised when the lockdown started – which was so important to ensure that older people and those shielding due to their health were able to have continuous access to food shopping and vital medication.
Now that churches and places of worship are allowed to open for private prayer, I have applied to volunteer with the pastoral team in my church as they prepare a rota to allow visitors in.
I imagine that some of the people who come to visit the church could also be experiencing grief and loss, so I will be making sure to promote the St Clare Bereavement Café project and Bereavement Helpline to them, so that they access bereavement support from other local people during lockdown.
I am hopeful that plans to open a new local Bereavement Café in our area could take shape by the end of the year, or the start of 2021, and I look forward to being one of the volunteer facilitators so that more local people experiencing grief and loss can get the support they need.