Much of the talk about the Downing Street parties has centred on the fact that they were stress relieving for hard-worked staff! In the first two lockdowns I was privileged to work with numerous volunteers who gave freely of their time shopping, collecting prescriptions and sorting food parcels for vulnerable people, and others who collated and delivered activity packs to over 500 young people every week. And NO, they didn’t have a weekly boozy party to relax, much as they deserved it.
As regular readers of my articles will know, I am privileged to be the centre and programme manager of the historic and iconic Queen’s Mill in Castleford, whose foundations support a history spanning over 1,000 years, of milling. Since 2014, Queen’s Mill has been the home of Castleford Heritage Trust, a charity founded in 2000, whose mission is to promote the town’s heritage, industry, culture and ultimately a successful community.
Refurbishment at Castleford Heritage Trust
In the last few years, the trust has undergone some changes. It has been refurbished, established the ‘community anchor’ for the Wakefield District, introduced valuable businesses to the site, hosted community projects, events and performances, and even re-commenced flour production.
This week, the trust is playing an integral role in the distribution of council-organised supermarket vouchers to people throughout the area who are struggling with high bills; many of these people are elderly and vulnerable. This is the latest of their new pandemic-era roles.
Castleford Heritage Trust and its transformation during the pandemic
The last two years have, in so many ways been very different to what we normally do as they have for many voluntary and community organisations throughout the country. This sector has played a plethora of roles during the pandemic with staff and volunteers being on the ‘frontline’ in the battle against the virus.
I am so proud to have been involved in their work, and I have witnessed some amazing acts of kindness, empathy and selflessness from staff, volunteers, and our partner organisations.
Assisting the local community
Here is my story and experiences. The views are mine alone, but for ease of writing I have used ‘we’ in the article.
In 2020, everything was going well; the trust entered its 20th anniversary year and was filled with optimism and hope. Little did any of us know though, just how special, unique, and challenging the year and indeed the one after that was going to be.
The trust always prides itself on being at the heart of the community, and this was especially true during the first lockdown. We transformed ourselves into a Covid-19 community support hub, assisting the town of Castleford and neighbouring areas in so many new ways. Of course, other voluntary sector organisations throughout the Wakefield District did the same.
We co-ordinated requests for food parcels, shopping, and prescription collections. The trust collaborated with partners such as the Young People’s Empowerment Project, who delivered over 500 activity packs per week, Castleford Community Books, and several invaluable food banks. We were also able to continue offering some of our regular activities and events, albeit virtually, such as a two-week visual arts festival. In between the first and second lockdowns, we were able to deliver some of our activities, as close to normal as possible.
We significantly increased our production of flour to meet the massive demand when it was almost impossible to source in the shops.
Lessons learnt from covid
Transforming ourselves into a Covid-19 Support Hub was an extremely steep learning curve, but a challenge we met successfully. Working with new partners proved to be a great asset to the local community.
Additionally, we became a ‘Help at the Hubs’ facility. The concept was created by Wakefield Council, with the input of the voluntary sector, to help people deal with the impact of coronavirus on issues like employment, money and wellbeing. To do so, we put residents in touch with a range of organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau.
During the second lockdown we continued with our shopping support, as well as putting the online activities onto DVDs for older people without internet access. Staying active online, including our Facebook page, was really important to us. We posted craft activities, a weekly Art Appreciation post, ‘Jaunts with Jeannette’ (centred around different topics each week), focus on local businesses in the area, amongst other things. Christmas 2020 activities were all online including a digital advent calendar.
2021 offered more optimism
Last year was filled with ups and downs, both for the trust and the public, as regulations and advice changed. But with summer came more optimism and a gradual opening of our range of activities, events, exhibitions, and performances.
It was always a very fine balancing act between Covid-19 safety (on which we took continuous advice) but also about offering activities to improve people’s wellbeing and mental health and by autumn 2021 this latter element was becoming increasingly important.
Distribution of food vouchers in replace of free school meals
One of our new roles in 2021 was the distribution of food vouchers during school holidays when children could no longer access free school meals. It was the success of this scheme that led to our current role in the new voucher distribution.
I have only been able to tell the story from my experience at Castleford Heritage Trust (who I work for), but we are far from unique. Voluntary sector, non-profit organisations up and down the country have been doing the same. Hopefully 2022 will allow us and them to return fully to their pre-covid work, but who knows what the future holds? All I know is that the voluntary sector will be there to play a vital role in whatever the year throws at them.