Esther Watts, the National Academy for Social Prescribing’s regional lead for the South East, reflects on the challenges community and voluntary organisations have faced during COVID-19, and how a new support initiative, Learning Together, aims to champion and support their work, to help them overcome these barriers.
The lockdowns caused by COVID-19 have put a terrible strain on many community and voluntary organisations providing activities for their local communities. As the former lead in London for Dementia Friendly Communities at the Alzheimer’s Society, my own experience of working with community groups has given me some insights into how hard it is at the moment for the voluntary sector. In addition, the groups I volunteer for have not been able to provide face-to-face activities and roles have had to be reconfigured due to fellow volunteers facing ill health and shielding. For us all, this has been disappointing, frustrating and, at times, really upsetting.
Meanwhile, other groups have gone into overdrive responding to the pandemic, expanding online and upscaling telephone support. TogetherCo, a loneliness charity in my region, Brighton, has been inundated by calls from lonely people. They had more referrals to their befriending service in April, May and June 2020 than in the whole of 2019, and also a similar jump in volunteer applications. At their peak in spring, weekly referral numbers were at 750% on the previous year’s average.
Community groups are amazing, but many have been so busy responding that they haven’t had the time to shout about their work, so we need other ways to help promote their activities and services and make sure they are linked with social prescribers in their area. Other community groups need support to rise to the challenges.
At the National Academy for Social Prescribing, our Learning Together programme is seeking to champion and support these groups. It’s a free regional support initiative for voluntary organisations, community and faith groups and social enterprises supporting communities through COVID-19 – tailored by regional leads like myself to the needs of the groups like yours, in my area.
Learning Together will start in this year and will bring together modules sharing practical information, bespoke mentoring and coaching and the formation of peer support groups called action learning sets. I know how important but challenging it is to create partnerships across regions, and so we’ve taken care to ensure that you will learn alongside other organisations, including those from other sectors within a geographical area or a theme, for example arts, natural environment, financial wellbeing, physical activity, health and care alongside social prescribers. This will help ensure that all the activity supported as a result of this programme will be part of a web of connections made available to participants’ in their local area.
Places do not cost and you have until 25 January 2021 to apply. If you have any questions about whether this is the right step for you, do reach out to your regional lead.
There’s so much amazing work being undertaken by community, faith and voluntary sector on the ground to build up skills and to connect these groups and organisations with their local social prescribers. Learning Together is all about supporting you, connecting you with your peers and sharing your success stories– and I relish the opportunity to work with you. I’m sure that by Learning Together, we’ll be able to spread this work even further and give more people more opportunities to live well.
Esther Watts is the National Academy for Social Prescribing’s regional lead for the South East. Her experience includes being the lead in London for Dementia Friendly Communities at the Alzheimer’s Society and working in the Mayor of London’s Health team.