Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Good Neighbours

Why you need a good neighbour scheme.

By Nat Bocking

Everyone realises sometime that the outcome of our ambitions often depends on small, trivial factors. One of life’s rules is something’s significance does not follow the effort needed to create it; otherwise the world would become a better place just by working harder and not smarter. Being able to park your car without getting a fine depends more on remembering to have enough coins with you than finding a parking space and you sleep safe at night thanks to the batteries in your smoke detector.

Another of life’s rules is that we cannot go through life without ever needing help from somebody. Tasks that only take a second to complete with two people are nearly impossible singled-handed. And have you ever tried to change a duvet cover with one arm in a sling? All the world’s religions and philosophies try to reconcile that it is human nature for people to band together for mutual support and protection while other influences try to force us apart.

To make our lives more comfortable, we need to recognise what small actions can make a big difference while working together is better than going it alone.

When we need a hand with something, people usually call on their neighbours, friends or family who are willing to help. That willingness is a resource sociologists call ‘social capital’ and the more social capital a person or a community has; the happier and healthier it is.

But people in many communities don’t have much social capital and may be unwilling to use it when their needs might be thought trivial, but we know trivial things may be very important our well being.

An old stereotype joke goes: Q: how many Jewish grandmothers does it take to change a light bulb? A: No, it’s O.K, I like sitting in the dark.

That kind of denial crosses all cultures and ages.  And whether it’s not knowing someone to ask or pride about needing help; great numbers of people, especially older ones, suffer because very simple things don’t get attended to which leads to much bigger problems and eventually greater dependency. A too often scenario is where an older person can’t change a light bulb and so then falls over in the dark and breaks a hip. They lose their confidence and their reduced mobility leads to a decline in their health.

Instead of going on about these gloomy outcomes, I can tell you what can be done about it. In Suffolk there are twenty one good neighbour schemes affiliated with Suffolk ACRE and another eighteen in the pipeline and there are other volunteer-run projects offering help with small tasks.

What good neighbour schemes do is offer a telephone number advertised in the community that anyone can call and ask if someone can lend a hand to do a small task.

The schemes in Suffolk are all different according to the needs of their particular community but the basic idea is to give assistance with simple domestic tasks that anyone could do but the person asking can’t do for themselves at the moment.

When there is a lack of public transport, many of the schemes run a volunteer car service to take people to hospitals or doctors’ appointments. All the schemes offer help with shopping or doing errands like collecting prescriptions, small repairs like tap washers, changing light bulbs, putting batteries in smoke detectors, gardening and also befriending and helping the recently bereaved.

All of the schemes have both older people and young people as clients and as volunteers too.
What these schemes offer the volunteers is a way to make a difference by giving their charity to benefit their community, with their time instead of money, by doing the everyday things they can do in their local area, when it’s convenient.

The schemes are an opportunity for volunteers to use their own life skills for the benefit of their community. You’ll find hospital administrators helping people with forms or a structural engineer putting up absolutely brilliant shelves and I would encourage anyone looking to enhance their CV to get involved in running a scheme.

The minimal costs of running these schemes are supported by their funders because they do many other things, they build social capital and also build a sense of pride and sense of belonging in the community.

Of course, it’s not only good neighbour schemes that can build social capital, the WI, the garden club or the church can do the same, but the good neighbour schemes also help sustain communities. People’s needs vary. Everyone needs a hand sometimes. A bit of timely assistance can help older people remain independent longer or working people don’t have to lose a day’s wages to wait in for a repairman.

I have seen over and over again the benefit of people being brought together by good neighbour schemes. Knowing that there is a safety net gives people the confidence to participate and makes them able to contribute to society. I’ve seen older people enabled by schemes to remain productive such as helping out with reading at schools and young people developing pride in their community, all because of the work done with good neighbour schemes.

Amongst older people and communities that have more transient populations, such as in popular retirement villages, there is a natural attrition in people’s social networks. Neighbours who helped each informally for years might have one move away or pass on and the neighbour left behind might not know anyone else to ask and nobody notices. Our British reserve can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering. A good neighbour scheme enables people to ask for help with the minimum of embarrassment or stigma.

How the schemes work is basically a time-bank format: there is a rota where a volunteer holds a mobile phone with a number that is widely publicised in the area. The holder doesn’t have to on-call all day and night, they can let the phone take a message outside of the publicised hours. When someone needs help, they call the number and the current phone holder takes the details and depending on the task, selects the most appropriate volunteer who said when they joined the scheme what tasks they can do and the general times of their availability. If the need is life-threatening, then of course the emergency services would be alerted but the most urgent calls tend to be putting out the wheelie bins because someone’s gone away and forgotten.

The phone holder rings a suitable volunteer and advises them of the task needed. If the volunteer can do it, they take the contact details and then take it from there. If they can’t, then they say so – volunteers are free to refuse – and the phone holder would call another name on the list. When someone willing is found, the client is told who will be coming to help. When the volunteer has completed the job, they call the phone holder and report it completed and pass on any useful information. This is in case the problem reoccurs and so that over a year or so, a picture of the profile of needs in the community can be built up. If needs would be better served another way, then that can be addressed. These schemes are also an excellent way to refer people to services who are able to help people with ongoing needs beyond the remit of the good neighbour schemes.

People might assume these schemes are inundated with people wanting jobs done for nothing or too lazy to do it themselves but in fact all of the schemes find this doesn’t happen very often, there is very little need for regulation and the people management skills required are only fairness and common sense.

It might sound onerous to be a volunteer but actually it isn’t. The most active scheme is in Wickham Market where they take 600 calls per year but nobody is complaining because they have around 25 very active volunteers and in practice, nobody minds helping out as they see the benefits. Other schemes might find they only have two calls a month for a dozen volunteers but it’s not the quantity that matters, but the quality.

Recently at a parish meeting I went to a woman came especially to say how she had moved into the community on retirement and didn’t know anyone but when her husband became ill, the good neighbour scheme had saved her sanity by taking her to the hospital and generally looking after her at a time of desperate need. Although her husband had since passed away, she was going to stay in the community as she had made friends through the scheme. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room afterwards and it is hearing stories like that that makes me want promote these schemes.

So far I have given examples of older people but the schemes have helped everyone. One client was a young man who had broken his leg playing rugby and needed someone to walk his dog. A young mother needed help putting together flat-pack furniture. And not only can people be helped by the scheme but other community organisations can. A village fete organiser might use the scheme to raise extra helpers and people who have regular voluntary arrangements such as tending the churchyard can share the load if they’re unable to sometimes by asking the scheme to cover for them.

The schemes are very inexpensive to establish and run. The biggest outlay is the required insurance which is £300 per year. To CRB check everyone costs £7.50 per volunteer. Most schemes have been set up for around £500. Schemes can serve just a road, an estate, a village or a whole town and schemes can start small and grow bigger as they find their feet.

The money for starting a scheme comes from a variety of places. Often a fundraising effort accompanies the recruitment of volunteers. Parish councils or local councillor’s locality budgets are a place to start. Suffolk ACRE has a grant-finding service to help you. Many communities have charitable incomes derived from ancient benefactors. Some schemes have raised money by having the volunteers do useful things for local businesses at commercial rates such as delivering leaflets or taking surveys.

If you think you should start a scheme in your community, you’re absolutely right. The best way to start a scheme is to contact Suffolk ACRE. We have a plan book with all the necessary paperwork already such as a draft constitution but you needn’t worry about any of that at first. If you can get about five people together with the same ambition, then you are likely to recruit enough volunteers and raise enough money with only a few hours work per month. You will have the experience of twenty one other schemes in Suffolk to learn from and the support of Suffolk ACRE throughout.  

A good neighbour scheme will bring a community together and make it stronger and be where small actions will have much bigger and better outcomes.

To find out more about good neighbour schemes contact:

Suffolk ACRE
160 Hadleigh Road, Ipswich, Suffolk IP2 0HH
01473 345300

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