It’s going to have areally good impact on the community because people feel they’ve just got more people that they can rely on. Now everybody is in the same situation, so everybody needs to be building a better Oxford.
I work for the Oxford Hub. My role used to be very much face to face and activity focused. I recruit volunteers to go into schools to run sessions with kids who are really disengaged from P.E, and early years sessions at nurseries. We would send our volunteers to help out and I would check how they were going. I also supported and delivered activity days for kids referred by social workers and family support workers and I used to have lots of meetings, like one-to-one catch ups, with volunteers to offer them support. So it was very on the ground work, meeting people constantly.
When the first bits of Covid-19 were coming out and there was talk about potentially going into a lockdown, we launched Oxford Together, which is Oxford Hub’s volunteer programme to basically help those in need because of Covid-19. Oxford Together runs in collaboration with the Oxford City Council and other local aid groups. There’s a few projects involved – so initially we set up Phone Links, which is for people who are isolated who might want a friendly phone call each day, and then we’ve set up practical support, for people who need shopping or prescription collection, and then there’s also Neighbourhood Coordinators, who are basically just organising locally, making it feel like there’s a sense of community going on. I’m mainly focusing at the moment on providing volunteer support for the practical support programme. We think it’s really important, obviously that those that need help getting shopping and stuff like that get the support they need, but also that the volunteers are getting support as well, because what they’re doing is huge.
We set up the Oxford Together website and sign-up sheet, and we launched that through all of our social media networks, and the Council and local aid groups promoted it. People signed up to volunteer with Oxford Together and then through that we reached out to people to see what specific programme they wanted to be part of. At first I was involved in helping deliver the phone link, we started off by recruiting lots of volunteers, and then we took on referrals. The referrals could be from GPs, the public or previous programmes – we have one called LinkAges Connect which works with lots of older people in Oxford, so we had a few contacts as well, and we reached out to them to see if they would like a phone call. We also offer the volunteers training and ongoing support. For the phone links programme they all get assigned a pod – it’s like a little WhatsApp group – and each Pod has a Pod Leader who specialise in different areas - one of them specialises in mental health, another in disabilities and stuff like that. That’s the person you can speak to if you’ve got any questions. It’s going really well, we’ve got lots of referrals, and it’s also something that we think could continue long term – it obviously launched in response to this, but I think it’s something that we will definitely take on into the future.
I then moved on to focusing on practical support. We have a system on the online platform Asana where all of the referrals come through, and then we have lots of people from Oxford Hub and the Council who have been trained to use the software who are looking at those requests daily. On this system we have different inboxes that the requests go to, we have a support form which is filled out by the person who needs help or filed out by someone else on their behalf and then the referrals come to the relevant inbox through the different tags from the support form which organise them – say, a request for someone that they need a food parcel every week, or someone who needs someone to do their weekly shop or collect their prescription. If the request is for practical support it comes through to the request inbox and we would open up the case and have a little read through it, and then we would call the person who needs support find out all the details and then go away and match them with a volunteer. We have this wonderful big map which has all of our volunteers on, and we can open up the map and add the person who needs support’s postcode or add their request number to the search bar in the map, and then it takes us to their location and you can see lots of green dots where the volunteers are, and then we’ll link them up.
We’re offering peer support sessions for volunteers who want it, once a week we’ve got a newsletter going out, with lots of updates about how well everyone’s doing and how many people we’ve reached, but also necessary information, like safeguarding stuff and bits like that. Also we’ve got a practical support phone and email, the volunteers can always just ring or email me if they’ve got something they want to raise or something they just want to chat through. We are also doing calls to all volunteers as well, just to check how it’s going. We are starting with the ones that signed up first and working backwards, so everyone knows that we’re really focusing on quality and making sure that everybody is being looked after. We want to leave it to the volunteers and their matches to sort out how they’re going to do things, we don’t want to feel like we’re kind of micromanaging them, but we also really want that volunteer support and we really want to be there.
We’re all working together across different organisations, different staff members from Oxford Hub and the Council sign up to different shifts to make sure the requests are always being managed on our Asana system. There are some Oxford Hub and council staff who are supervising different shifts, and we’ve got a joint communications platform on Slack where we’re constantly all talking to each other, so we all know what’s going on. It has been great meeting and working with people from other organisations all focusing on the same outcomes. We have 22 different programmes at the Oxford Hub, so we are very good at creating something for everybody, we have always been really good at being flexible in thinking and working. I think that’s had a huge impact on this situation, where we needed to respond really quickly. We obviously couldn’t do it on our own because we need people with other skill sets and stuff like that, so that’s been really helpful that we have already had those existing relationships and have been able to build on them even more as well as making new ones throughout this whole experience.
I think because at Oxford Hub our main thing is bringing people together, bringing people and organisations together to build a better Oxford, it kind of was our role to step up in response to coronavirus. We kind of already had ideas of what would work, but we knew if it expanded to be huge we’d definitely need something else, so that’s when it was really helpful to be able to do whole new systems. I’m usually a very reflective person, I need to kind of think about something and then do it. Now I’ve realised I can definitely step out of my comfort zone and actually respond to stuff quickly. We’ve all kind of been put slightly outside our comfort zone, because things need to be done, like now, and everybody’s gone above and beyond with it and kind of surprised ourselves.
I think it is just about being a more connected city really. We’ve always recruited volunteers to come on various different programmes, but we had such a huge response in such a quick time for volunteers signing up to Oxford Together. It’s going to be really great to have maybe reached a different sort of audience of people, that we might not have necessarily reached before. I feel like in quite a lot of places in Oxford you might live on a street but not necessarily feel part of the community, and I think now, because people have been almost forced into having a chat with neighbours, you really realise that Oxford is such a nice community. It was my birthday in lockdown and my whole street sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, they all stood in their doorways and sang.
It’s going to be quite weird to go back into normal life and even though I was a very sociable person, it’s going to be such a big change. It makes me think about all the kids that we work with, who might not necessarily be social, and what it’s going to be like for them going back into real life afterwards. There’s going to need to be big work done around people’s confidence and self-esteem and anxiety, stuff like that, even just going back to school. I guess it’s just adapting to a new way of life. But we’re making those connections, because so many people are so keen to be offering the support that people need at the moment. People are more willing to help and volunteer their time, because everybody is sort of in the same situation. It’s going to have a really good impact on the community because people feel they’ve just got more people that they can rely on. Now everybody is in the same situation, so everybody needs to be building a better Oxford.
Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing