The Covid-19 Community Support Hub was set up seven weeks ago to help people in the Borough who are in need during the pandemic. Sophie Kyle and the other support hub advisors handle almost 1,000 queries a month, which can be up to 70 queries per day, signposting people to the most appropriate help for their needs. Some help is already on the council’s website, such as the list of local stores offering delivery, or the directory of local community and voluntary groups. The support hub advisors also inform people how they can get their prescriptions safely, as well as helping people who are struggling to access food.
We spoke to Sophie to find out more about the help the Covid-19 Community Support Hub offers to the local community.
“I started working on the helpline the week before Easter. It was manic. In the beginning, we were working half-day shifts, but the demand was so great that half days turned into full days and now we have a team of about 40 people taking shifts, with 15 people per day handling calls from 9am-5pm, seven days a week.
“The job is incredibly rewarding as I know I’m really making a difference to people’s lives. I might only be signposting them to a service, maybe giving them the phone number of a shop that offers delivery, or putting them in touch with the trusted community group that can help them out with a hot meal, or maybe just telling them who can lift their prescription from their local pharmacy. All these things are really easy for me to do with a computer and a phone, but for an elderly person who can’t get out and has no access to the internet or for a parent with a child with additional needs this can relieve a major source of anxiety for them.
“The demand for the Department for Communities’ food parcels has been astounding. Even though the criteria is quite strict for getting access to them (you need to be shielding and in critical need of food with no other way of getting it, either through deliveries or with the help of family or friends) it’s surprising how many people are eligible.
“I always try and make sure I cover all bases when I’m speaking to someone. So, for example, someone might come through to me enquiring about a food parcel, but they mightn’t have thought about their prescription that needs to be lifted in a fortnight, or they might not know about or Good Morning Service where we have people who can check in with you every morning with a quick phone call for a chat to make sure you’re ok. Some elderly people I’ve been on the phone with have said I’m the first person they’ve spoken to in six weeks. That’s very difficult to hear, and I’m glad if I can stay on the phone with them for a while just to have a bit of a chat and hear their story. Everyone’s story is different, and every single person has different challenges that don’t fit neatly into a certain box.
“I spoke to a gentleman the other day whose kettle had broken. To some people that might not seem like an essential item, but I just couldn’t imagine being in isolation and not being able to make a cup of tea! I put him in touch with a local community group that was able to get him a kettle that afternoon and he was over the moon. It can be those little things that mean so much to people. I regularly get calls, texts and emails from people thanking me and calling me a lifesaver, when all I might have done is listened to their problem and given them a phone number!
“I love what I’m doing, but it’s very draining. I try to take 10 minutes between calls to clear my head as sometimes the stories are quite unexpected and while it’s a privilege to be able to offer a small bit of help, it’s really tough to hear what some people are experiencing at the moment. It’s sobering to hear the range of reasons that can land people in crisis, but it’s also reassuring to know that there are so many ways that people can be helped out of a seemingly hopeless situation, either through our own council support or through one of the many amazing community groups in our area.
“There is no pandemic training, so we’ve all had to learn on the job. Definitely the first fortnight was the toughest, but now I feel like I’m getting into the swing of it and we have great systems in place that are working really well. Before all this, I was a Good Relations Support Officer supporting community groups through events and programmes funded by The Executive Office, so I’m used to dealing with the community. I miss it, but this way I still have contact with the community, just in a different way.
“I’m really proud of our community response. It’s what I do in my normal role, and I know some of the call handlers haven’t got any community background so I take my hat off to them for stepping forward to take on this role as it’s all completely new to them.
“We get referrals from the SHSC Trust, AdviceNI, elected members, and directly through our support email address, but most people hear about our service through word of mouth. I had one lady who referred six of her friends! Each of them had different reasons for needing help, but they were all eligible for support and it was incredibly gratifying to be able to offer assistance in so many different ways for people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard about our service.
“There are a lot of sons and daughters living away from elderly parents who are very concerned about them. It’s good to be able to give them a bit of peace of mind and let them know that the basic needs of their relative will be taken care of.”
What about outside of work, how is Sophie coping? “Well, I’m due to get married in October and even if weddings are allowed to go ahead by then it doesn’t look like it will happen in the way we had planned, as it looks like there will still be an element of social distancing restrictions in place at that stage. We had bought a new house but construction work has stopped so we can’t move forward with those plans at the moment.
“I still live at home so I haven’t seen my fiancé in seven weeks, but everyone is facing their own unique challenges right now, and the work I’m doing every day really helps to put that in perspective.”