Peter Grigg: The pandemic has caused great hardship, but given charities so much to learn from

The coronavirus crisis has brought out the best in many people, driving a generosity and community spirit that charities should look to build on

This has been a year like no other. It has tested our NHS, care system and economy. It has pushed many charities to the brink and some to closure.

For so many people our charities work with, the shadow cast by the pandemic will be long.

The same is true for families. All families have been challenged, but for those already struggling with pressures such as poor mental health, illness, low wages and job insecurity, the impact has been greater and the shadow will be longer.

It feels difficult to know where to point to on the horizon for something to look forward to.

With this in mind, it is worth reflecting on outstanding heroes of this pandemic – people in our communities.

Neighbours, friends, strangers and the host of community volunteers who have been propelled by Covid-19 to help others in their neighbourhoods.

Many were helping before the pandemic, but new volunteers have joined too. The question is whether this is a blip born of necessity or the signs of a longer-term civic spirit in the making. 

At Home-Start UK, we were approached earlier this year by John Lewis and Waitrose, which had been reflecting on the same thing.

In any normal year, the John Lewis advert was part of the Christmas landscape, like hearing the first Christmas song on the radio or eating that first mince pie: sparking the start of the season’s festivities.

Yet the John Lewis Partnership saw that this Christmas will be one like no other; a year when it will be essential to come together and capture the spirit of generosity and kindness we have seen in communities throughout the pandemic so that we can make this stick into our future.

That is why I am proud that Home-Start, along with FareShare, is partnering John Lewis and Waitrose to raise £5m to support struggling families this Christmas.

This would be a remarkable contribution in any year, but right now it feels like such a timely boost for the families we work with.

Families have been the silent shock absorbers of the pandemic in so many ways. With each challenge, families have been forced to take on more – a withdrawing of normal support, home schooling, redundancy and social isolation.

The pandemic continues to add more to their load, and we need to re-balance this weight before the scales tip over. While the demand of families is not yet completely visible to all in our communities, it is often when things are quiet that a storm is on the horizon.

In any normal year, Home-Start’s network of 13,000 community volunteers helps about 27,000 families with face-to-face support in a family’s home, or peer support groups, bringing families together to support each other.

This year’s restrictions have forced innovation, with home visits becoming Whatsapp groups, weekly phone calls, doorstep drop-offs of essential supplies, or socially distanced walks in the park.

Home-Start is not unique in this. We all have examples of adapting our work and packing five years of innovation and service development into a couple of months.

In the short term, our new ways of working are providing some of the support people need, and we can further develop lots we have learned.

But in the long term, we need to work to create a more supportive, inclusive society and call out the systemic inequality that suggests the pandemic will leave a more harmful legacy for marginalised groups.

My hope – my challenge to the sector – is that we capture and keep the spirit of generosity we’ve seen during Covid-19.

As charities, and across all our partnerships, we should reflect this and follow the examples of co-operation and community spirit with each other that we see in our own communities.

This is an opportunity for us to stand together and recognise that the aftershocks of this pandemic will require longer-term adjustments for those most disadvantaged.

It is time for us all to ensure community spirit and local acts of kindness become part of our everyday fabric.

Peter Grigg is chief executive of Home-Start UK

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