“It’s been a journey,” Amelia Bilson of Middleport Matters in Stoke-on-Trent is talking about the response to the coronavirus lockdown. No sooner had they settled into their new premises than they were told to lockdown. But their visibility – out in the high street and by continuing ‘to do’ – has firmly established their role in the community.
With a National Lottery grant they opened their hub in January – the lockdown came on March 23.
“We hadn’t cemented ourselves in the community yet. We’ve been around low level – doing litter picking and improvements in the area, like planting and rebuilding projects. But it’s been hard to advertise – all we’ve had has been social media and leafleting: not everyone reads your leaflets, and not everyone’s on social media. We were so excited to get our premises right on the high street.”
They faced up to temporary hub closure. Then they reconsidered having worked out that they could maintain government guidelines on social distancing by using a skeleton staff, limited service, PPE and deep cleaning.
“We thought, actually this is the time the community needs us the most. We just wanted to be available,” says Amelia. “We didn’t know what the issues were going to be so we did a flyer. Since then, it’s been slowly growing. Now the team is crazy busy and loving being really part of the community.”
They asked people to get in touch with whatever they were facing. They also signed up to a council initiative to offer deliveries, including prescriptions and food.
Engaged, visible, open and willing
Being engaged, visible, open and willing, led to more. Before lockdown, fresh food from a farm shop was distributed from the local primary school through a project with Farm Fresh Revolution. After lockdown Middleport Matters stepped in.
Vicki Gwynne, Operations Manager at Middleport Matters hub says: “The supplier was happy if we had any surplus from their delivered goods that we could use as part of our food distribution, and myself and Clair have obtained other food through donations from other organisations – and we are providing around 50 bags for food each week.
“Transport isn’t great in Middleport. Although there are a couple of convenience stores, they are expensive and don’t have everything in. We’ve been working to get quality, nutritious food – fresh fruit and veg – in for the community.
“We use what’s donated to get food parcels out to people who are isolated, people who are vulnerable, people who are really struggling – either they’ve lost jobs or been isolated from families.”
Then it grew even more.
“It spiralled from that with other people and organisations offering things to us, because they realised we were giving things out,” says Amelia. “We will receive any appropriate donations and we find a way to distribute them.”
Middleport Pottery donated clay. The hub has also been sharing home learning packs for kids, including craft and educational material. And they’ve been in talks with their local allotment to distribute fresh produce and seedlings for people to grow on their own.
The location of the hub and being open has been ideal.
Being in the hub proved to be the right place “because of the amount of people who are knocking on the door with worries, queries concerns, struggles that we can then either signpost or help out with ourselves. It has been great,” says Vicki.
They’ve also been able to ‘shout out’ to people
Vicki says: “When people come out of a shop with one bag, we’re saying ‘I don’t suppose you want any fresh fruit and veg? We’ve got some if you want some!’ It’s been really nice and engaging.
“Even this morning a lady walked past and said ‘thank you’ for some food we’d gifted.”
The location of the hub has been used to its fullest being decorated in rainbows and information about the Second World War for VE Day. And they are looking at ways to accommodate teenagers who want to volunteer. They are also getting referrals.
“Now that we’re known for being open and being available, people like adult social care, and those who know about vulnerable families or adults, are referring our services to them. We’re getting to know more and more about the people who need help.”
They have also made the inevitable move online, which is where their Creative Coffee sessions have gone.
“Once a week we do a virtual one,” says Amelia. “We post all the things you need, how to do it and share photos.”
And they are managing to continue their successful music project called the Players Academy.
“It’s been going for a few years now. It started because we’ve got a bit of a gang issue, as a lot of areas do. Educational attainment is pretty low, kids get expelled and they don’t really have the money to invest in music equipment,” says Amelia. As the project was delivered in schools, when the schools were closed they couldn’t continue, so they went online.
“Digital lessons are not the same,” says Amelia. “The majority of our young people won’t have their own instruments. It’s not delivering what we want to do, but we want to maintain some form of engagement and we don’t want those young people to think we have forgotten them. Those videos are a reminder to them that they matter.”
That approach is a reflection of Middleport Matters’ ear for what the community needs.
“We’re trying to find out what people’s needs are, and if people have a need, we try to meet it,” says Amelia. “At first we had a load of people volunteering who had never volunteered before, but we had nothing for them… but we’re finding as the lockdown is continuing more people are reaching out to us.”
Some people don’t see themselves as needing support, which is where the referrals and the team’s open, inclusive approach comes in. They knock on doors, highlighting the hub and offer a gift of food.
“Nobody says no to a gift, right?” says Amelia. “It’s been interesting. Each week we learn new things and new opportunities come up.”
They had to be adept at changing with the evolving needs of the community during the crisis.
Vicki says: “Food was definitely the first thing. We had families coming in with children at home who were struggling to fill the cupboards and get nutritious food for them. As it’s gone along it’s been more about uncertainty. I think it’s had an impact on people’s anxiety and their mental health because people are saying they’re still not sure what’s going on. It’s more questions, queries and some hygiene essentials. We work with Hygiene Bank Staffordshire. They donate personal hygiene and household cleaning items that we pass on.”
But how have the funders reacted to their changing role?
“All of our funders have been brilliant!” enthuses Amelia, which has meant they’ve been able to continue and not close down. And the funders have taken on the shift in requirements and delivery.
Vicki says: “The National Lottery, who fund us, are saying adapt to the needs of the community, which is what we are doing. This isn’t what was in the plans for 2020.”
All sorts of events were planned for the hub, which had to be put on hold.
The culmination of the work they were doing with the Canal and River Trust called More Than Water was due to be celebrated with a big event which was cancelled.
“That was really sad,” says Amelia, who reels off the list of projects involved and beams talking about their fishing club, which holds the record for the most people who have fished on one stretch of the canal in one day.
“We’re excited we’ve still got loads we can do in the future. But we’ve come up with new ways to support the community. I’m really proud of the team, and I’m really proud of the community.”
Local businesses, too, have stepped up.
“Because we were so new on the high street we hadn’t yet got a relationship with the businesses there. But they’ve been offering us things like carrier bags – if you’re giving out 50 bags of food in a week you need carrier bags!
“We hope they feel they’re giving something to the community, and hopefully they’ll be part of something that we do in the future.”
But who knows what the future will hold?
“If anything more comes up then we’ll adapt to that. What next? We don’t know. There are loads of ambitions that are on pause, and there are new things that we can do.
“A positive from this – as much as this has been difficult and horrible – is that the community now know we’re here for them.”
Vicki says: “The feedback and thanks you get – people ringing up to say they appreciate the fresh fruit – makes it worthwhile.
“You work all week and you think you’re not doing anything. Then you look at the numbers and the amount of things that you’ve handed out. We had an answerphone message from a lady who we know has dementia and she’s on her own. Her carer had helped her to script a thank you message. You do smile when you hear things like that.
“But you adapt, you make do, and you do what’s needed.”