Looking back and moving forward: our Love Your Neighbour & Phone a Friend Volunteer Celebration Evening

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Last month, the Love Your Neighbour team hosted our first virtual Volunteer Celebration Evening. In ‘normal’ times, we’d have spent the afternoon running around in preparation, getting the venue ready, pre-ordering pizza, stockpiling drinks, and then awaiting the arrival of our wonderful younger neighbours. Like everything else, this year was slightly different, and we switched to a remote alternative. Thankfully, we still had a group of energetic volunteers sitting in our Zoom waiting room at 6pm!

Despite being unable to host the event in person, it was great to bring everyone together. We’ve often acknowledged that, as a one-to-one matching programme, volunteering on Love Your Neighbour (and its new pandemic counterpart, Phone a Friend), can sometimes be a little isolating, more noticeably this year. This is the reason that events like this are so important; they give our newer younger neighbours the opportunity to meet other longer-standing matched volunteers, share learning and experiences, and, most importantly, celebrate the impact they all made over the last year.

And what an impact they made! As the evening began, we looked back on the incredible 1,561 phone calls between younger and older neighbours since we suspended our face-to-face programmes last year, as well as the 231 socially-distanced meet-ups. Younger neighbours got to know one another and their community of matches better as they each gave one word summaries of their friendship with their older neighbour. It was heartening to hear examples like ‘supportive’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘fascinating’, as well as more unexpected responses such as ‘gossipy’, ‘hilarious’ and ‘surprising’!

We also ran a session to give volunteers more insight into our anti-racism commitment. We encourage all members of our community to ‘call in’, which means challenging acts of racism or other discrimination as they occur and giving members of our community the opportunity to recognise and learn from mistakes. We know at times that this can be difficult, so in this session we shared different techniques for approaching these conversations, which prompted really interesting and valuable discussions in the group about their own experiences.

The final part of the evening focused on both looking back and moving forward. We asked the group for feedback on how they had found the programmes over the past year, as well as their thoughts and feelings about the transition back to face-to-face programmes as restrictions ease.

The first question we asked was how being matched through Love Your Neighbour or Phone A Friend had impacted our younger neighbour’s wellbeing.

We were pleased to hear that for many, being matched had had a positive impact on their wellbeing, and that talking to or meeting with their older neighbour had given them something to look forward to and a much-needed reason to get out the house. For volunteers, making a new friend or maintaining their friendship with their older neighbour had been a good distraction during lockdown, and overall had become a reassuring constant during an otherwise unpredictable year. However, many expressed that it had been worrying or emotionally challenging to see their older neighbours find the last year hard, and not have felt able to do more to help. The restrictions have created practical barriers for older neighbours, or highlighted pre-existing ones, which volunteers felt had impacted their friendships. As a consequence, ensuring calls stayed positive had been difficult at times.

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It was really useful to learn more about these challenges, and we appreciate the openness and honesty exhibited by our volunteers when speaking about the realities of their friendships, something we perhaps need to create more space for.

Following on from this, we also asked volunteers whether being matched had made them feel more connected to their local community.

It was fantastic to hear that, even during a national lockdown, many younger neighbours felt their friendships have enabled them to stay connected to their community. During the last year when getting out has been less possible, much of this has come through neighbours sharing stories about their areas, especially about what these places used to look like and how they’ve changed. Some volunteers also told us that their older neighbours had made them see their community from a different perspective, whether this is the way they interact with other locals, or how their mobility means they experience the environment around them.

Despite this, matches who have been unable to meet in person due to restrictions understandably felt the programme had had less impact on their connection to their community. The flipside of this was that many matches were really looking forward to meeting up face-to-face, exploring the local area together and even attending in-person Social Clubs with their matches once we’re running them again.

But we’re aware that this isn’t the case for everyone, and that many are anxious about returning to a ‘normal’ that doesn’t seem so normal anymore! So, we asked our volunteers, what were their concerns and what could we do to make the transition easier?

One of the key and most obvious concerns raised was about the risk of transmission when meeting indoors, and ensuring everyone was comfortable with visits before they go ahead. Some were also aware that the period of isolation will have had an impact on their older neighbours’ health, memory and independence, and so are concerned about managing their expectations when it comes to outings or meet-ups. Others were nervous about the initial awkwardness that could come with meeting their match for the first time, or difficulty communicating whilst wearing masks if an older neighbour has hearing impairments.

But, as usual, our volunteers came through, and offered some really useful suggestions for how we could help, and we’ve been busy putting these in place so the process is as smooth as possible for matches. Many expressed that there was a need for clear guidelines for indoor visits so that everyone can feel confident that they’re meeting in the safest possible way. Some also reported that their older neighbours had struggled to access government guidance and the current roadmap, and therefore were nervous about breaking rules by resuming visits. While many people can look this up on the internet, it’s easy to forget some can't. As a result, we'll include the roadmap key dates in the guidelines we send out and explain what they mean for friends sharing time.

Volunteers also said they wanted the flexibility to move at their own pace when starting meet-ups, so we’re ensuring we highlight this flexibility when speaking to matches. We’re also planning to signpost matches to where they can access rapid tests as reassurance before visits, and we’re offering specific types of PPE such as face shields to matches which may allow for clearer communication.

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We are so grateful to all the wonderful volunteers who came along and contributed to these discussions; it’s going to be a challenging and exciting few months ahead, so we want to make sure everyone is on board and feels comfortable with our plans. And it was so lovely to hear that our younger neighbours got so much out of the evening too. Rosie, matched on Love Your Neighbour with Brian, sent us this unprompted email the next day:

“I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed last night. It reminded me that I am part of a bigger community. I think during this past year it was easy to forget the wider South London Cares network, as calling Brian has become a routine in my life now. I loved talking to the other volunteers and hearing about their matches. I haven't signed up to a virtual social club this year, but I came away from yesterday's call so uplifted. It really gave me a boost — so I will be signing up going forward.”

If reading this has inspired you to join our community of volunteers, you can apply here, or contact Eleanor (Southwark) or Lauren (Lambeth) to find out more about volunteering during our transition phase. We’re also open to receiving more feedback as we undergo this process, so if you have any, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Lauren Barr

Posted by Lauren Barr on Friday 7th May 2021

Lauren leads our Love Your Neighbour programme and new Phone a Friend programme in Lambeth, connecting younger and older neighbours one-to-one for weekly visits or phone calls, and longterm friendship. Previously Lauren worked for a national education charity, and at her local pub in Clapham.

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