The first thing was a quick decision by the Town Council to support the local community, followed by quick and decisive action by our Acting Town Centre Manager (Town Clerk) Deborah Sarson, to get a dedicated helpline (01638 667227) up and running, plus a number of volunteer co-ordinators and businesses who wanted to help. This naturally included a response from various churches, as well as our Muslim community, who have recently acquired premises which they are converting into a mosque.
Both Catholic and Anglican clergy phoned round their congregations, with OLISE calling more than 400 people, with the aim of identifying the vulnerable and keeping in touch.
OLISE, the Community Church and the mosque agreed to supply hot meals to children and families who would normally qualify for school meals, as well as the elderly, with additional help from local businesses, racing tour minibuses were re-purposed to deliver, as well as hotels and restaurants agreeing to help with the cooking.
The Town Council’s database has amassed over 200 volunteers and nearly 400 residents in need of assistance. This is both shocking and encouraging, shocking for the number of people in our small town who can suddenly be made vulnerable, but encouraging in terms of the number of volunteers who have come forward. We certainly hope that many of these are “bitten by the bug” and continue to volunteer when this crisis is over.
My role has been in manning the helpline, helping other Councillors sort out access to Zoom, so we could still meet, albeit virtually, and being part of the steering group to manage the council’s (and associated groups’) response to the crisis. I’ve also delivered leaflets (the neediest won’t be on social media), and figured out how to do it while not touching the letterbox itself! (use a ruler!)
Because of the sheer number of people needing shopping, we arranged a “food parcel” with a week’s worth of food staples from Tesco for a fixed price, which could be picked in bulk and delivered by our volunteers, rather than expose them to Tesco for extended periods. Payment is an ongoing issue, with supermarkets calling residents once their shopping had been done to take payment over the phone. Use of cash is being discouraged, as notes and coins can harbour the virus for days. A lot of prescriptions have been collected on behalf of residents. Our food bank has seen both increased use and increased donations as closing businesses donate surplus stock.
Groups like Town Pastors have shut down so their volunteers can redeploy to help their local area or self-isolate, but our prayer teams have been asked to work overtime for those actively tackling the crisis.
However, we also have an eye to what might happen once the lockdown is lifted. It is likely that the elderly will still have to isolate, and many volunteers will return to jobs, so there may be challenges keeping our vulnerable residents supplied. Hopefully we will have streamlined our processes by then. We are also aware that many will have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses, and will need advice and comfort to help them cope. To this end, I am exploring using Newmarket’s SOS Bus as a “mobile Citizen’s Advice Bureau”, so we can reach as many people as possible, though it does need costly repairs first.
So, while churches may be closed, they are most certainly not idle in these difficult times.
Pictured above is John Borda, after talking to BBC Radio Suffolk about the Newmarket churches’ response.
Click here to listen to John Borda speaking on BBC Radio Suffolk, start listening at 1.24hrs. Only available until Mid May.