Dartmouth Community Chest and Townstal Community Partnership were perfectly placed to step up to the challenges of the lockdown. Three weeks in we got in touch with Dartmouth mayor Graham Webb, mayoress Jayne Webb, Dawn Shepherd and Alisa Kefford Parker to see how they have adapted to support their community. 

Tell us about how you’re coping with the coronavirus? 

Alisa: Prior to the coronavirus, we were working with TCP and various people and we got a Hub going. We had a communal meal on Fridays, a chat and do crafts and that was growing very nicely. We’ve got the infrastructure there. Dawn particularly knows a lot of people who are at risk. People who are socially excluded. Often it’s about money but a lot of the time it’s not, it’s about having the social skills and the emotional support that you need. Because of the groundwork that Dawn has done for donkey’s years, we hit the ground running and we could just expand.

There’s been an enormous outpouring in the community. People volunteering for just goodwill. They don’t know who they are helping or who’s helping them – it’s faceless. It’s a real community effort. And because we’ve got the infrastructure there to start with, people know to come to us for help. 

How do you know who might need support? 

Dawn: We put leaflets in the parcels we distribute. If we get someone in one street that needs help – they are waiting for the 80% of their wages, or they’ve got to self isolate, have sick children and all that – we give them some leaflets for their street. If they know anyone in their street who might need us, they can put the leaflet through. Then either they’ll ring us or they’ll have a chat and pass on the information. 

We know it works because it is growing and the word is passed around. A lot of people come to us because 80% of wages are not coming through. The other reason is that most people would have been doing their seasonal hours now and, of course, they haven’t started and they haven’t had a chance to get back on their feet after the winter. 

How has the transition from Friday Hub to now been? 

Dawn: Once we got the hall it was easy. In the beginning, there was a bit of panic because there’s a lot to take on. I said we’re just going to do what we’ve got to do about the virus, but we’re going to treat this like anything else that goes on in our town. They were saying 12 weeks – when people lose their job that is about how long it takes them to either get back into work or sort themselves out. So we’ve been treating it a lot like what we do anyway. We’ve just got the virus on top, so there’s more cleaning! 

Jayne: FYI we’ve had the captain of the Royal Naval College’s wife cleaning out our lavies today!

Alisa: And she’s coming in again on Monday – she’s got a full-time job, but it’s her day off. 

How have you found volunteers?

Dawn: People are desperate to do something. They feel powerless with what’s going on so this is having a bit of control back. Our lives are chaotic and scary, doing something makes them feel it’s not so bad. 

Alisa: I’ve got a different group of friends that wouldn’t have spent time up in Townstal because there is a divide that does exist. Now one of them’s here every day – it’s changed her life. She loves it. And new people are coming. 

Graham: This desire to help people is latent in everyone, I think. People don’t get the opportunity to show it, they are so wrapped up in their own lives and in their own worlds and everything else. Then something like this happens and they feel a need to want to help other people. Maybe for their own reasons, or maybe because of the milk of human kindness. But it’s there in people.

Jayne: People just need a push sometimes. 

Dawn: I think it shows that if we weren’t bogged down with full-time jobs to pay bills, what we could put into our communities – they would be much fairer places.

Graham: I met a young mum last night who said that before this happened she was starting to worry. Her children were growing up, they were going to go to school and she was worried about finances and jobs. Now she’s cherishing the time she has with her two young boys. She’s been amazed at how much she’s been able to enjoy time with them because there’s no pressure. If that’s been repeated dozens of times. Hundreds of times. Thousands of times. It’s got to be good for society, surely. 

Are there a lot of positives stories like that, or is it more people worrying about the future? 

Alisa: There are lots of lovely notes that are coming through from people. Lots of messages to Dawn and little videos.

Dawn: Before, if some wanted help from us it was usually about low income, so they were ashamed to let anyone know. But now because it’s not about that, it’s about us all sticking together, they are not worrying. That probably wouldn’t have happened before because they were worried about being judged for having to have some help. Now it’s across the board.

Jayne: At Dartmouth Community Chest we don’t means test, we’re inclusive for everybody, and that makes it an awful lot easier. 

Do you think this will change people for the future? 

Dawn: It already has. 

Jane: It’s changed the way the community interacts. I think we’ll take more responsibility for each other. There will be fewer barriers and if we capitalise on it straight away, once things get back to normal we’ll build huge inroads. 

Alisa: There are still two towns here. But if we keep telling the stories of people coming together it does solidify it being a real and not a temporary thing. There are still a lot of people that aren’t involved that could be. It’s good that the Naval College is involved – building those relationships and making friendships that are just spider webbing out. It’s really nice that those kinds of organisations are involved.

Dawn: I hope it doesn’t go back to normal – I don’t think normal was working. This has proved it wasn’t working. Out of this comes change. We’ve hardly heard from the agencies. This is the end of three weeks up here. We know what the community needs. The community knows. All the answers are here and this proves it. 

Jayne: This is the community doing it. Doing it for themselves. 

Graham: We’re making it sound that we just supply Townstal, but we don’t, we do the villages as well. And the town. We deliver food to the flats and the sheltered accommodation, assisted living places in town, and individuals. We also collect prescriptions, and shopping if they’ve got specific dietary needs. To us there’s no barrier between Townstal and Dartmouth. Alisa’s right, there is still a barrier. One of the things I want to do is remove that barrier, and it’s not going to disappear in a few months. It’s going to take years. Maybe this is a catalyst to doing that. 

On a personal level, how do you guys keep the energy to keep going? 

Alisa: Adrenaline. No-one’s had time to stop. There’s a lot of humour and love and all those cheesy-but-wonderful things. That gives you energy. Personally, for me, I feel so good about myself right now. 

Jayne: In the kitchen, we’ve got people who have run their own restaurants and there’s no ego here. Everybody’s just mucking in and doing it, taking instructions when they need it, and getting along. 

Dawn: I worry about people who are used to working 13-14 hour days and their mental health. I think it would drive them crazy sitting at home and I’m sure there’s a lot who work those hours, so this is probably doing them good at the same time as they’re doing good. Which is great. 

Graham: On that point, we’ve not had much of a take up of the telephone befriending. I think it’s too early. At the moment they’re entertaining themselves and they are coming up with novel ways of keeping the kids and themselves going, but when that starts to wear a bit thin, I think that’s when people are going to start needing…

Jayne: …emergency knitting…

Graham: …the mental health side of things to help to keep them going. 

Dawn: We’re not seeing as much of the fear around the town as we were in the first few days, once they knew there was something in place if they needed it. People are just getting on with their new normal, and are not frightened. It is like walking a tightrope, but they’ve got a safety net so they’re doing it with a bit more confidence. Trying to get rid of that fear, and the mental health issues that will come out of it, is also a big part of this. People need to be connected. 

Alisa: As this grows those logistical processes and those operational ones are all coming together nicely. You can see everyone changing and adapting really quickly and growing really smoothly. The infrastructure of this was there well before anyone turned up to help.

Dawn: A young couple saw me at the supermarket, asked me what I was doing and then took it on themselves to create the Go Fund Me page.

Me and Graham didn’t go on the council to sit on meetings. We wanted to be visible, easy to reach and available – it’s our community and they voted us in. We were always going to be like that. This has just pushed that a bit more.