Billingham: How scores of volunteers have flocked to help the vulnerable
by Alex Metcalf – Local Democracy Reporter
A SELFLESS drive to get help to thousands of vulnerable and isolated Teessiders is growing with hundreds of volunteers giving up their time. Local Democracy Reporter Alex Metcalfe spoke to the leaders looking after Billingham’s response to the covid-19 crisis.
It’s a frightening time for many. But adversity can bring out the best in humanity and often brings stories of selflessness. Thousands of people in Billingham are staying at home and shielding themselves as part of a nationwide effort to slow the spread of potentially deadly coronavirus.
All the while, a committed team of volunteers has set up its headquarters at the Synthonia Club, off Belasis Avenue, preparing food, medicines – or just offering an ear – to vulnerable folk who need it most. Teessider’s from different walks of life – from ex-police officers, to factory workers and NHS staff – have all pulled together to help the effort.
BCT Aspire, a community interest company which helps youngsters in the town, has joined forces with Billingham Town Council, Billingham Boxing Club, Billingham Environmental Link Programme (BELP) and others to co-ordinate a relief effort for the vulnerable.
Paul Burgum, from BCT Aspire, has been helping organise volunteers while staff at the town council help field phone calls with donations and requests for help.
The 40-year-old said: “I’m looking at the rota – I’m used to managing volunteers but I’m up to 75 at the minute. It’s just been a fantastic response and it’s an interesting challenge in itself to go from what was basically a flat start have a team come together.”
“It’s been an absolutely brilliant response.” Leaders have had a matter of days to mount a community response to covid-19. BCT Aspire has worked on the response under the umbrella of Catalyst – a body set up by Stockton Council in 2007 to organise a raft of voluntary organisations in the borough. The group is nearing its ten year anniversary now – and Mr Burgum explained how a crisis on the scale and magnitude of coronavirus required a joined up response.
He added: “I guess all we tried to do was say we’ve got some skills, we’ve got some stuff and if we all do it together, we can do a better job. I guess that’s what we’ve just about managed to achieve in Billingham.”
Mr Burgum said the hub had become a “satellite” for more than just food – and offered some insight on how the whole operation worked to deliver vital supplies to those who need it. “We get the calls for prescriptions, welfare calls or food and we have an admin team in place based around Billingham Town Council’s core staff,” he added.
“We’ve got a database of information and from there we’re actioning our team of volunteers. It could be dog-walking or getting a prescription and we’ve got people who are then doing that. Then there’s the food centre where, if it’s food related, we have a team bringing in shopping, supplies and putting the packs together by liaising with a group of volunteers.”
Staff at Billingham Town Council have been fielding the phone calls and requests as they come in. Chairwoman Cllr Clare Gamble told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the council was originally considering John Whitehead Park’s cafe as a possible hub before the Synthonia Club was chosen for its easier access. She added: “At the moment we’re doing prescriptions, free parcel delivery and dog walking – we’re also giving people regular welfare calls just to check they’re okay. Very early on, we had a meeting and one of the things I wanted was for us to be involved in some kind of response. We allocated £5,000 just so we knew we had the money to go out and buy food for people.”
“When BCT got involved and said they could help under the Catalyst process – and it made absolute sense to work together. It’s great to see everybody pulling together and working for the community.”
Crises like coronavirus don’t come along often – but Mr Burgum explained the voluntary sector was well placed as it worked in an “unideal world” all the time.
He added: “It doesn’t have the resources, or massive teams, it has to be innovative and has to adapt continuously – what that means is when things like this come up, there is an ability to simply get on with the job.
“I’m not a detail person – the rest of the guys will tell you that – but what we are good at is making things happen. This is a world where you’ve just got to react to get something done – and then we can always make something better. Rather us fashioning fantastic plans and strategies and all of that – we get something started and then we refine it and then adapt. That’s how voluntary organisations have to run all the time – we probably now have more resources now than we’ve ever had because the local authority has said it would support us.
“It’s our community. We don’t need telling off the government or the local council that we need to react to a need in our community because we are the community and that’s really important.”
The COVID-19 Community Support team has now helped hundreds of vulnerable people in the town.
Cllr Bob Cook, leader of Stockton Council, said it was offering a vital lifeline for the most vulnerable in the borough. He added: “It’s taken a mammoth effort to get it up and running so quickly and that is testament to the tireless work of our staff and the brilliant VCSE organisations we have in this borough. So many people have risen to the challenge and my heartfelt thanks go out to every single person who is contributing so much. The team has taken more than 600 calls already – that’s hundreds of people who need help who are getting it, and all thanks to this great community service.”
More stringent measures to prevent the spread of covid-19 are expected to last several weeks at least. But there have been countless examples of Teessiders going the extra mile to help their neighbours, donate to foodbanks or just do something to cheer one another up.
Rounding off, Mr Burgum said: “I’ve been in the voluntary sector my whole life and when it comes to humanity – there is no problem with it. The negative gets a lot of noise because it’s part of the human condition. It’s part of who we are – but the good stuff goes on every minute of every day. The voluntary sector is about bringing whatever positivity we can – we’ll leave the rest of it to the politicians.”
The hub on Belasis Avenue is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm – and 10am to 4pm at weekends.
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