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  • Oxford Together Stories

Space For The Human

We’re building up relationships on a very individual basis between a volunteer and a person or family, but then also within communities and across different community networks, and the City Council and voluntary groups. It’s all about the human.

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I was working as a CEO of a charity in Oxford, but I actually was leaving around the beginning of March, because I wanted to change careers. I was just finishing off the handover, and then the lockdown became more serious. I have got very involved in Oxford Together. So that’s become quite all-consuming. I’ve worked alongside Sara in the Hub in various projects across children and families and things over the years. I saw it was happening and I signed up to be a volunteer and I talked to Sara about the area locations, and it just sort of evolved from there really, in terms of getting involved as a telephone pod leader for the new phone link service.

The pod leader’s role with volunteers is to ensure that they’ve got the support they need while they’re calling people, and to match them with callers. Each time a call is made, there’s a record sheet kept which comes to each pod leader, and they read through the different calls and try and track the story, to keep a sense of how things are going for all the people being called as well as for the volunteers in the pod. Quite often referrals for the telephone support come in through different routes. So it can sometimes take a while until that phone link volunteer gets a bigger picture of that person’s life. And it can be really helpful to know a bit more about what’s happening in terms of practical support, particularly if that person’s quite vulnerable, if they have dementia or mental health issues. There’s no doubt that a lot of the people who are being referred in are people who already had really high-level support needs pre-lockdown. And some of that stuff has been exacerbated by lockdown. So that’s quite a challenge for anyone, just as a volunteer, to step in and fill some of the gaps that were already there. If someone is deeply unhappy, you know, very often talking in a low state, that can be really hard for a volunteer who’s calling without a lot of other information about the person. That’s quite a hard thing to hold. So it can be reassuring to know that there are other services in place, but also who to refer to if there are concerns, usually mental health services, or a social worker.

I think, not unreasonably, people in certain roles, when they were transitioning to remote working and not quite sure what services they would be able to continue to provide, they went through a lot of their case list, just systematically referring people for support. And so that can be quite a lot to untangle there. But also what it’s meant is that some residents in Oxford who perhaps had been socially quite isolated pre-lockdown, in actual fact, post-lockdown, they’re having more contact with external people than before. They’re not seeing people. But they are having regular telephone calls with the same person, which they weren’t necessarily having before. There are various people I call quite regularly. It’s a real privilege, you know, you get an insight into different people’s lives and it’s nice to have that chance to talk with people. So people benefit both ways.

I think culturally, there’s probably quite a lot of pressure within the City Council to do what you need to do within your job description, on your level. Because I’m a volunteer, you know, it’s a different way, you’re held to account in a different way. Whereas if it’s your job, I don’t know what freedom they’ve been given to be creative when they’re in their role. I can see that some Council people work very creatively and are very agile, but I imagine that’s harder the more junior you are.

I think what might be getting lost along the way is the idea that this has actually come out of a community response. Because we had these layers of volunteers. We have the volunteers who are registered with Oxford Together, and then we also have street champion networks and mutual aid groups. What’s wonderful about this is that it should be seen as a sort of bottom-up response, where hopefully, one of the benefits is that people who perhaps have been very isolated within society are actually integrated into some of their communities. That can be a sort of an unintended benefit, regardless of Covid. One of the things that limits this is that people sometimes feel like there needs to be a more professional response, where there’s a higher level of vulnerability. And actually, what we know is before this, our state was not supporting these people properly. And there’s no doubt that there are pre-Covid gaps that are being filled by this. Someone may not be trained to work with someone with mental health issues, but they may be able to offer that person something more than they had before. But now I don’t see many as new requests come in, people aren’t generally looking to the community networks to fill in any of the gaps. They’re almost always looking for a slightly more formal process.

There isn’t enough respect given to the creativity of third sector responses and the effectiveness of that. The key is enabling people to be confident with risk, I think. We have over the last 20 years developed such a risk averse social service. It’s all about risk assessment, and people aren’t always comfortable holding some risk. Everything is recorded, everything is assessed, everything is measured. Not a lot of space for creativity, and study. For the human. I can find myself sometimes being cautious about a case, thinking I would just go straight to this volunteer that I happen to know, but is this a City Council project or is it an Oxford Hub project? Is it a community third sector collaboration, or is it actually a statutory service? Am I gonna get criticised for being too relaxed about some of the responses? And is there information somewhere on the system that I don’t have access to? It could probably do with some creative, interactive discussion between the key different stakeholders at the moment, just to really throw it all up again.

I think it would be good if we could perhaps really support and grow the street champions networks, or perhaps use them more. It feels like this big resource that’s not being properly used. The phone link service I think could definitely have a life of its own. And I think it would be really useful if lots of other specialist organisations saw that as a shared resource that they could perhaps input their specialist consultancy into. And then there could be this project of community volunteers who will phone people. I think what’s interesting about that, is you can see that for some of the callers, their relationships with the people they’re calling have evolved, and they are developing into friendships.

For me, the situations that are really successful are where you can see that somebody has been matched with a volunteer for practical support, for example around shopping or prescriptions or just general things, and that person is now in weekly contact with them. And when I check in with a volunteer again, they say they’ve learned all of this about this person’s life. And so the practical volunteer is able to safely work out what’s going to be helpful and appropriate and useful without over-interfering and over-involving, and that’s probably something that will continue as long as they are both neighbours.

I think it’s really interesting how different this design and approach is to the government-initiated National Volunteer scheme, which is much more top-down. I’ve spoken to a few people who were signed up for that, and it’s very much app-based. There’s no relationship building, you know, it’s like, here’s a task, do you want to do it? So it’s not relational, whereas here, the thing I think that’s really important, is that’s what’s changing. We’re building up relationships on a very individual basis between a volunteer and a person or family, but then also within communities and across different community networks, and the City Council and voluntary groups. It’s all about the human.

Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing


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