• Oxford Together Stories

It's Such A Time For Innovation

There's a world in which this could be quite cool - where rather than being pushed from service to service - people are actually helped and have got the right services to help them. I'm hoping there are exciting things that could happen in the future.


I was working at Oxford Hub. I was very busy cycling all over the city doing loads of meetings, trying to run a million projects. Lots of face to face work, like ‘Big Brothers Big Sisters’ - a mentoring programme for children, and another programme I was trying to get off the ground about volunteers keeping older people active in the community.


I think what happened was someone from the Council, one of the Councillors, sent Sara, our CEO, an email saying that volunteers are going to be really important during the Coronavirus. So, we said, we need to ask for volunteers, we need to launch it now. And so one morning we quickly mocked up a sign-up form. It was really simple messaging, like: “Sign up here if you can help others, those that need help during COVID-19”. Since then I think we’ve had well over 5500 people sign-up, which is just amazing. As a charity that is always trying to convince people to participate in the community and volunteer, when at times it sometimes kind of feels like no one wants to, this was on a scale that we've never seen before.


Then we had this super busy time where everything was changing so quickly. The team were remote, and we were recruiting so many volunteers, and we were getting emails from people in organisations saying, “You know, we have some staff you can have”. We're not a big staff team, there's nine of us normally, and suddenly we had thirty to forty people who were working, doing stuff, almost full time, and I was trying to oversee it in such a way that people had loads of freedom to do great stuff, but at the same time we knew what on earth we were all doing and that everything was well coordinated.


So we just said, “We’re gonna get on with this”, and the Council got on with their thing, a bit slower than us. And then there was this kind of uncomfortable, “Well, they're doing that and we're doing this and that's stupid,” like someone would ring me to get a prescription picked up and then I would find a volunteer and then it turns out someone from the Council had already done it. So it was really badly coordinated, but that wasn't for long. I'm not sure how long, it’s hard to remember, but like maybe 10 days or something. And then I think things became much more aligned between what we were doing and what they were doing. I mean, now we're working collaboratively to a ridiculous extent. We're very reliant on each other for this project. But it’s just happened so quickly, in a very informal way, which is really cool because it's forced this kind of quick response to happen.


So we had all of the practical support stuff, volunteers getting shopping and everything like that, and then we had street champions providing neighbour support. And then we had phone links, which is what I've set up. I've mainly been working on that, and it’s something I'm really proud of actually. Now we have 230 people who are receiving regular phone calls from a volunteer. What's really interesting is that, obviously it’s needed for the Coronavirus, but it's actually just a great service in general.


I think sometimes when I talk about phone links people are like, “Oh, that's lovely, that's a really nice thing.” For the volunteers, I think, there was kind of this illusion of, “I'm gonna call this really lovely old lady, and I can talk to her about gardening.” Or that it would be people ringing who maybe needed a bit of advice around the Coronavirus and may be quite isolated. Obviously there have been some like that, but most of them are people who are really struggling and I think that some of the volunteers have been a bit surprised but they have done an amazing job. It shows how much a friendly ear and some companionship can help people. The actual referrals we've had have been very complex – people with multiple disadvantages and mental health difficulties. There's been a lot of talking about suicide and domestic violence and things like that. I've been speaking to people on the phone who are in quite distressed situations - which I find really challenging, as I haven’t done anything like that before - and then trying to work out the complex world of who actually helps these people.


It's been amazing how we've collaborated with quite a few charities on that. Lots of people have been really supportive and run training for the volunteers and have offered me advice, and volunteers have had supervision from different charities. And I think that is one of the cool things about this period- that charities have been much more able to look at all the social issues. For instance, someone who works with us is from Age UK, and they can look and think, “Oh, actually, we could help there” or “I know someone who could help them”, and a bit more of that kind of triaging. There's a world in which this could be quite cool - where rather than being pushed from service to service - people are actually helped and have got the right services to help them. I'm hoping there are exciting things that could happen in the future.


The Council have given a lot of power to us at Oxford Together - like, hugely. Sara and I have been alternating going to ‘mop up meetings’ at the end of the day. We've been training their staff, training call centre staff, and they've given us a lot of the strategic lead on it as well. We had quite a good relationship with the City Council anyway. It isn’t really a funded relationship, which I think has definitely helped as it means that the relationship isn’t about funding, it's about working together.


The County Council and the City Council are realising that they need volunteers, and that's really, really interesting. I kind of hate the word ‘volunteer’ - the role that people and communities and citizens play in just helping out their neighbours. Most people have found someone to help them with their shopping or they've got an online slot now. So if a request comes in today, then it's more of an emergency scenario or something's happened that is quite complex. So the services check is different. It’s had to change - it’s had to adapt to that.


So I was working super hard for a long time and I was really enjoying the work because I felt like we were doing something really, really important and impactful and great. I was proud that we've set up something so good really quickly. Then I got ill. I had Coronavirus, but without any symptoms until I got pericarditis, really bad chest pains. So then I had to go off for a while and then I went back part time. Basically, I think what we realised was that loads of staff were kind of reliant on me and I was holding way too much and I needed to delegate a lot more.


I think that when we were at the peak of our work and the peak of the virus, that probably I was stressed - I was so overwhelmed. My partner, he would hear me get off the phone and be like, “Oh my God.” Every time I'd have a phone call, he was like, “How are you coping with this, the constant phone calls with people who are distressed?”. Now I feel like things are a little bit more settled and I feel more positive. I've learned different ways of doing stuff, like maybe we can be remote a bit more and I can be more intentional about my time.


We’re in quite a privileged position at the Oxford Hub in terms of working very closely with the Council and I've been thinking a lot about how can we bring other small groups into that and how can we make sure that everyone's represented with more diverse communities. I feel like it's such a time for innovation. People are more open to all of the future possibilities.


Edited by Renata Allen

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