Staff and volunteers are celebrating the second anniversary of the Torbay Community Helpline today (Wednesday, March 16th).
Set up to provide support for people during the coronavirus crisis, the Helpline has since provided help to more than 8000 people in Torbay – one in 17 of the whole population.
To date, the Helpline has handled 38000 calls, which at the peak were running at more than 400 a day. The number of calls has now fallen to a more realistic rate of around 400 a week.
Initially, the calls were all about food and prescription deliveries as the Bay’s more vulnerable people heeded the Government’s advice to stay at home in isolation, which also led to fears that more people would become lonely and isolated.
At the peak, more than 1700 volunteered to help their neighbours in whatever way they could and more than 70 good neighbour schemes were established set up in communities in the Bay.
Since then, the Helpline has become a one call that’s all service for a wide variety of support, including mental health, financial, food parcels, domestic abuse, adult social care, and many more.
At first, the Helpline which was set up by Torbay Community Development Trust, Age UK Torbay, Healthwatch Torbay, Brixham Does Care and Citizens Advice Torbay, was staffed exclusively by staff from charities and voluntary organisations but were soon joined by volunteers, some of whom are still taking calls.
Wendy Arrowsmith joined in May 2020 when we were in the grip of the first lockdown: “I came forward even though, to be honest, I was absolutely terrified as I was useless on the computer, but I knew I wanted to do what I could to help. I did not want to put elderly relatives at risk through physical contact, and I knew I was confident speaking to people, so the phone was ideal.
Mother of three, Wendy said: “It was really daunting and really scary at first. It took several weeks to get into the swing of things before I could actually relax.
“In the early days, we were all learning together, however, it worked, and it filled a massive hole not just in the statutory care service but in the communities we served.”
Wendy recalls her first call being from a lady who was struggling to get anyone to visit her home because of lockdown to fix her much needed chairlift: “It took a bit of time, but we got there in the end and it was fixed. It turns out, of course, that was one of the easier ones,”
As time has gone on the calls have become more complex, but Wendy has also become more adept at working on the bigger picture. “So often you get calls such as those asking for a food parcel, that is just one small part of what is going on in their lives.”
She recalls one in particular from a woman who had never had to ask for help for anything before: “She was distraught at having to ask for a food parcel and broke down several times during an hour long conversation.
“But it was not only about the food parcel, we sorted that quite quickly but during the conversation we also identified that she needed financial support as well as help for her children through a young people’s counselling service because of problems at school.
“We got there in the end, and it involved a lot of work; there were so many things that were broken. I did get back in touch with her later to make sure things were getting better.”
The Helpline now deals with many more complex issues than it did initially, and Wendy is proud to still be a part of it:” There are so many people out there that still need and without the Helpline they would not know where to go. The Helpline and the team are helping deliver better community services in Torbay.
Staffing the Helpline from the comfort of her own home in, Paignton has also been beneficial for her: “It has given me more confidence and I am grateful for the opportunities and the training that has been given.
“I cannot recommend it highly enough as a volunteering opportunity. It gives me a purpose. This is what I do for me, as well as for others.”
Helpline manager Karen Marcellino said: “I’ve often considered myself as someone who is never surprised by anything, but my time on the Helpline has proved just the opposite. Every day I am surprised at the resilience within local communities, the desire to support each other is alive and well in Torbay.
“Many callers are experiencing a crisis of one sort or another, be it mental health, domestic abuse or impending eviction, time and again what shines through is the desire of local people to thrive, not just survive. The Torbay Community Helpline gives us the platform to empower our communities, linking to support where and when it is needed most.
“Of course, none of this is possible without the large number of volunteers who have supported the Helpline since it’s inception. As we find ourselves in an ever changing world, one thing remains constant; the desire and dedication of local people to support each other, it’s a pleasure to be part of it.’
Laura Dorling, also of Paignton, joined the team halfway through 2021 to find a routine and give something back to the community.
She wasn’t working, but had already decided that she wanted to work in mental health after completing a degree in psychology and criminology, which she has been studying through the Open University.
She enjoys being on the Helpline so much that she works a four hour shift most days and has many memorable calls from people who needed help
“At first I wanted to help everyone personally, but obviously that is not what it is about, and put simply, you can’t, on any level.”
But when the help leads to a good outcome, she feels a tremendous sense of achievement: “On one occasion an elderly caller really needed to get her husband into a home. I spent a lot of time researching all the information that she needed and she was then able to sort it out for herself.
“At times like that, you really feel that you have done something, made a difference.I have always enjoyed talking to people and staffing the Helpline really helps keep you grounded. Everyone should do it, if they can.”
Tracey Cabache, director of Torbay Community Development Trust said: It is hard to believe that it is two years since the Helpline started. A lot has happened since then, most importantly, it has been established as the place to go for people in the Bay who need some support and are unsure where to go.
“It has come a long way from the service we set up at the beginning of COVID with the aim of making sure everyone in the Bay was able to access food and prescriptions as well as having someone to talk when they were lonely.
“We are very proud of the service the Helpline provides and stand by our slogan of One Call, That’s All. We could not have done it without the dedication and determination of whole host of people including volunteers who worked and continue to work alongside staff from numerous charities and voluntary bodies in Torbay.
“The Helpline was about COVID, but now it has its own future and is here to stay.”
The Torbay Community Helpline on 01803 446022 is available from 10 am to 6 pm, Monday to Friday and from 11.30 am to 12.30 pm on Saturdays.
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