The new challenge: how one community business is coordinating the volunteer response to COVID-19

by Twine

5th June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a surge in volunteering, with up to 10m people estimated to be supporting the community level response across the country. Community businesses are playing a key role coordinating activity locally, such as Castleford Heritage Trust, which owns the world's largest stone grinding flour mill.

Edward from the Twine team caught up with Jenny Catch from Castleford Heritage Trust to find out how they have been handling the challenges of volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, and to see if we can learn from their experience.

Edward: Thanks for finding time to chat with us today. So how did volunteering work at Castleford Heritage Trust prior to the COVID-19 lockdown?

Jenny: Before COVID-19, the vast majority of our volunteering was in-person and supporting face-to-face services for local people. We had around 60 volunteers across a number of services and functions. I’d say maybe three of those volunteers were online. Everyone else volunteered either at Queen’s Mill, or face-to-face in the community, or a combination of both. Obviously, much of this was incompatible with social distancing.

We ran a lot of social groups at the Mill itself, and we also have our shop. Interestingly, our milling activities to produce flour for the local community, weren’t a problem. Our Millers often work in a team of two spread across two floors, and because they wear equipment for food hygiene, obviously since we are milling flour, they were very low risk anyway.

So what changes have happened, how did you pivot during the lockdown and social distancing?

Actually,we halted in-person volunteering prior to the lockdown being implemented. We were carefully following the news and we knew many of our volunteers would be either vulnerable or shielding. It was a difficult decision because we know how important our services are to local people, particularly the social aspects. We just weren’t willing for our vulnerable people to take the risk, our volunteers and those who attended our groups.

Since we’d suspended face-to-face volunteering about two weeks prior to the lockdown, many of our community members expected rapid changes. We immediately worked to move some of our social activities online, which is not a perfect solution. People who are socially isolated and attend our groups may be more likely than your average person to also be digitally isolated, so getting them into a group skype knitting session for example is a challenge.

The role of the heritage trust in the local community is also obviously preservation and celebration of local history, and the volunteers who met to do that traditionally travelled quite far as it is a specialist activity. We were able to change part of this project into digital tasks as there were some administrative elements that could be done via email, but we did have to suspend the physical elements of this task.

Our volunteer groups have been working to support each other too. For example, the team that runs the shop have been being kept in contact as the shop leaders call them to ensure they still have a sense of ‘the team’ despite our shop being closed and some of them shielding. The same is true of our knitting and quilting groups – they have telephone contact to help prevent isolation.

There was also unexpected consistency. As I mentioned our Millers continued coming in because of the inherent social distance and hygiene of the work they do. We are so fortunate to be able to provide local flour to the community in a crisis; since lockdown we have sold more flour than we did in the prior 18 months.

We were fortunately able to continue raising funds through this, but it’s also had a very positive impact on these volunteers.

How about new services arising from COVID-19?

Early on the council was asking for organisations in the Wakefield District to act as support hubs. The work we do is at the heart of the Castleford community and we have many partnerships, so we put ourselves forward to be considered for that. Our services transformed within weeks from events, festivals, workshops, activities at the mill to becoming the COVID-19 support hub.

This mostly involved setting up a system for people in the area who needed shopping or prescriptions or collections if they were self-isolating or shielding. Our job was to make sure that happened! We worked quite closely with the council and an organisation called Nova which is supporting volunteering for the Wakefield area.

It took us a little while for us to get all the structure into place for it, but what we knew we needed was enough volunteers to meet the increased demand in the area. We knew that many of our volunteers would themselves be isolating or shielded.

We started recruiting for what we’re calling the Hub Project volunteers, for practical support, phone befriending, shopping for people and all that sort of thing. We’ve had phenomenal response to that, we have about 58 volunteers that are specifically COVID-19 support. Five were existing volunteers but the rest are brand new. The co-ordination needed to find out what days people can do, who can drive, and so forth was intense for a short period but has smoothed out well.

Have you had to change any internal processes around how you handle volunteers?

With emergency volunteering we knew we would rapidly need support but not exactly what and how, so we had to adapt our processes a bit there. In the early days I remember sending an email off about volunteers to the council and Nova and the trust management/board saying what we need to consider, for example volunteer PPE and distancing rules and so forth and how we’d achieve it. We needed answers and we couldn’t in good faith recruit volunteers without knowing how we’d achieve what we needed to in order to keep them safe.

Because it was an evolving situation and no-one really knew the specifics, we were directed to NCVO who had prepared their own materials. We work closely with St Georges in Lupset and Ryehill Community Centre who had also become Hubs, so we were asking each other how they’d implement rules and PPE and collectively coming up with a common sense approach. Having that peer collaboration was really valuable and helped us all navigate that uncertainty.

We put together comprehensive FAQ’s about PPE, social distancing, support options too to help speed up the process. I think in this time of crisis very clear guidance is critical and so we tried to make sure we offered that to everyone, not just the new volunteers but also our existing volunteers with suspended projects.

How are things evolving at the moment and looking toward the future?

People are beginning to go back to work now, so we need to ensure that we maintain people’s interest and volunteering levels. While many of us return to work and society re-opens, many people will still need to be shielded, potentially for a long period of time. We’ll still need to support these people.

Our challenge now really is in keeping everyone in the loop, particularly with us socially distant, as our volunteer numbers have gone from nearly 60 to over 110. We have newsletters for our volunteers going out regularly and we also invite them to speak to us if they need to, because we need them to know we are able to support them if they need it. We really want everyone involved with the Heritage Trust to know we care about them and that even if they have to stay at home that we are here for them.

We can’t answer the question of when we get back to ‘normal’, but we are trying to map out how to return to some groups to the mill by ensuring they are socially distant and meet the hygiene rules.

As part of that we have noted that one of our main strands of work is around wellbeing, we work with groups of all ages but a particular focus the wellbeing of over 60’s. This is a group that tend to have less access to technology so whilst loads more things become available to people who are digitally engaged, they might be left behind. We’re putting a strong focus on to how to mitigate this, particularly looking at which changes we have made can become permanent because they benefit our community, and what changes we need to further make to include everyone.