Marple's Mutual Aid Group, an amazing success story!
Like most people in Marple, we received a Marple Mutual Aid leaflet through our door and we saw the article on the cover of the Marple Review that was distributed just before lock-down. Via social media I was aware of the group's aim to find a way for local people to help each other though the Covid19 crisis and was pleased to help share their message on the web site's Community Forum.
Community was the key word for Marple Mutual Aid Group
I've been amazed, like many others I suspect, at what the group has managed to achieve during the difficult times of recent months. So much so, at the end of May I approached Zoë Porter, the inspirational leader of the group, about writing an article for the web site.
Zoë was enthusiastic about this because she saw it as a way to record the contributions of some of the people more ‘behind the scenes’ that others don’t know about. However, as you will see, she has played down her own role to such an extent that I had to be a little devious and contact others about Zoë's own contribution to the group. So the green quotes inserted thoughout the article are from Zoë's team without her knowledge, and I hope will not embarrass her too much.
Before I hand over to Zoë and her colleagues, here's a welcome contribution to the introduction from Marple South and High Lane Councillor Aron Thornley:
I first contacted Zoë after hearing about the mutual aid group in Marple at a time when there were mutual aid groups setting up all over the UK. I have since met with her several times as I have wanted to know more of what the group are doing. I'm not sure Marple has quite seen a new community group like this in many years; their impact has been felt across all of Marple. I believe this group is starting something very special in Marple that will stay with us for many years - the idea of neighbours coming together to care for neighbours. Not new, perhaps, but reborn in a new spirit and with an organised group of people supporting the movement going forward. And at the head of the group, without a shadow of a doubt, although she might be too modest to admit it, is Zoë. I cannot say enough about what she has done. Her patience, passion, strength, communication, determination and knowledge have been at the core of what is driving this group forward. Her contribution to our community this past few months has been immense and I am so grateful and thankful that we are lucky enough to have her as one of our own, living in Marple.
Marple Mutual Aid – the beginning
Marple Mutual Aid started in a whirlwind of passion, stress and determination. By mid-March 2020 we were all facing the coming reality of the pandemic and the impact it would have on our lives and those around us. It was the only thing anyone was talking about, on the streets, in the shops, and, of course, on social media. Just as many people were talking to neighbours and coming together in their streets, Dawn Sharples, who has been central to many great community initiatives around Marple started a Facebook group to begin to organise some of the community response across Marple. Marple Mutual Aid was born. The initial concern driving the conversation was the immediate predicament for people who were being advised to self-isolate, and also the impact on local businesses that may result.
We wanted to be there to support our self-isolating neighbours with the practical and emotional impact of what was to come, and we also wanted to support local businesses. We were clear that we were just neighbours helping neighbours, and weren’t trying to provide anything that would be more appropriately offered by professionals, or existing services.
Getting set up
Within a few days we had over 1,000 people on the Facebook group and countless offers of help pouring in. For all the pain and damage the virus has caused, it has also brought out the very best in people. But there was no time to reflect on that, we needed to get organised, and quickly!
I had the job of going around as many shops and chemists as I could get to, to talk to them about how they might be able to keep supplying people who were self-isolating. Marple is a place where walking to the shops is an important part of everyday life for lots of people – and suddenly a large proportion of customers not being able to do that was going to hit some businesses hard. Some, by luck, already had ways to take payment online or over the phone, and even delivery services. Others had never had to explore that, and were now having to adapt under extreme pressure, whilst worried about the future, and overrun with panic-buying customers. We thought that we would be able to help with deliveries, by drawing on the kindness of volunteers who weren’t self-isolating. We quickly made up a leaflet that listed the details of shops, and our offer of help. We also needed some way for people to be able to ask for help – so we set up a central email account, and a phone number that could be transferred to different people who were willing to take phone calls. All these details went into a leaflet and we were off!
Sarah from Marple Stationery Supplies had agreed to print the leaflets. Soon her copier was working the hardest it's ever worked, and almost 7,000 leaflets were in production. Simon Blair got involved to help compile a list of streets so that we could keep tally of where they had been delivered to. People came forward through the Facebook group to help coordinate the deliveries. The next few days were a crazy blur as people, led by very organised co-ordinators in different neighbourhoods, arranged to pick up leaflets and deliver them – over 65 people covering 300 streets. With the exception of one unfortunate incident of a dog bite, it all went well, and we reckon we posted leaflets through a good 80% of letterboxes. Getting the leaflets out so quickly before real ‘lockdown’ began gave us a great headstart – and while we know we didn’t manage to cover every street we were also pleased to be able to publicise the scheme through the Marple Review – with a front-page photo no less. Knowing that this would also be going through every letterbox was reassuring.
Zoë Porter, Sarah Laker and Simon Blair in the Marple Review
The requests start to come in
On the 19th March – only 5 days after the Facebook Group had been set up - calls started coming. The first was for a pick-up of fruit and vegetables from JH Neals Greengrocers, and JH Neals would prove to be a regular haunt for volunteers in the first few weeks! By the following Monday we were receiving over 20 calls a day. We quickly realised that we would need a number of people to share out taking calls and we asked for help. We ended up with a crack team of people from a variety of backgrounds who have stayed committed throughout lockdown, taking calls Monday-Saturday.
JH Neal Greengrocers and Nathan with an electric cargo bike loaned by TfGM
Paul Ormandy, on furlough from working on oil rigs gravitated towards the first, and busiest, slot of the day, which he handled calmly with good humour. Julie Gill is retired holistic beauty therapist and a regular volunteer at Beechwood Cancer Care Centre, who used any downtime when the phone went quiet to complete some impressive jigsaws and bake a succession of cakes. Rachel Elliott was on maternity leave from a social worker role but has given up the time she would have had when her son naps to field calls, as well as sharing her expertise with us when we have needed advice about more tricky situations. Dave Burley was waiting for a new job to start, and quickly became a crucial team member, taking responsibility for lots of aspects of how we worked. As well as designing and getting printed posters, and directly supporting lots of self-isolating people, he has patiently repaired our spreadsheets when we broke them and helped our group of Luddites master an over-complicated phone system. Sue Newsome joined the team a bit later, and has brought her kind and caring approach, while she refreshes her nurse training where she plans to work with people with dementia.
Paul Ormandy (centre) and Mike Hope erect signs around Marple
Paul Ormandy: Zoë Porter is a founder member and the keystone around which Marple Mutual Aid has been built. She is a mum to two fantastic kids, a keen organic gardener and chicken fancier. Having moved to the area a couple of years ago she has taken on the mission of championing the local community. The group wouldn’t exist or be anything like as efficient without her leading the way. More than 1,000 people to date have been helped by her commitment to the group and she continues to inspire the team; with good reason Zoë is the face of MMA.
Dave Burley: From the outset, Zoë’s dedication to the group has been truly incredible. Her leadership has been inspirational to us all and I’ve been humbled by how much she’s sacrificed to help our local community during lockdown. A true hero !!
Julie Gill: I joined Marple mutual aid in March after seeing on the facebook group they were looking for volunteers to help with leafleting. After that I got involved with taking phone calls which soon evolved into a proper job. From Day One Zoë has been so helpful and supportive - as a team we couldn’t ask for a better team leader. She does everything with good humour and nothing fazes her, especially as she’s also still working and looking after her family. It’s a long time since I’ve properly been involved in anything so exciting and it’s great to feel useful again.
The number of calls coming in each day varies, with our highest number being 52 on 7th April. We love talking to people, and getting to know them. On occasion we’re given a glimpse into how tough things are for some of our neighbours, particularly for those who have lost loved ones, who are having to cope with their grief in isolation. Sometimes people have shared information that has led to something lovely happening. On a day in April Kirsty Keywood, who helps manage the scheme, and who is one of the kindest people around, took a prescription pick up request from a lady called Kathleen. When Kathleen mentioned it was her 98th birthday in a couple of days, Kirsty couldn’t stop herself hatching a plan. By letting volunteers in on the secret, and having a swift word with Simon, the Asda manager, a pile of cards were soon building up outside the supermarket. On the day of her birthday the lady was surprised when Simon turned up at her door, with a stack of cards and cakes. The twist in the tale is that she had her cards all made out to Kathleen, which is the name she had given us to pick up her prescription, whereas the name everyone knows her by is Marjorie. She didn’t mind too much!
Asda manager Simon delivers Marjorie's (Kathleen's) 98th birthday cards
Kirsty Keywood: Zoë has a determination to make sure that the Mutual Aid Organisation evolves into something much longer term to help local residents and to build a stronger community. Marple Mutual Aid would be totally lost without her.
Mornings are always busier than afternoons, and for a while there was a massive run on prescription deliveries, with people stocking up on repeat prescriptions in the same way we had all been panic buying toilet roll a couple of weeks before. The chemists were seeing up to 3 times their usual business, whilst often managing without members of their team who were needing to self-isolate.
In the first few weeks we also heard from people who were simply stuck – they weren’t set up for online shopping, or able to pay for things over the phone, and didn’t have family close by. We linked into a project that Marple Sports Club funded with Asda of food parcels that the Asda manager, Simon Lea, and members of the Marple Cycling Club delivered on a Wednesday. An electric cargo bike on free loan from Transport for Greater Manchester was a welcome sight on the roads, delivering these. These, plus food available through the Pantry Foodbank provided an invaluable stopgap for people who needed them. As well as all the initiatives making PPE for local workers, and connecting people such as young mums, we were delighted to hear about Cat Yates, who was offering hot home-cooked meals, and were able to add to her growing list of people who could enjoy them.
Hannah Hodgson (Marple Sport Club) Alex Waddington (Marple Cycle Club) and Simon Lea
Most requests relied on our growing pool of volunteers to help out – by now over 200 people had registered with us. We allocated people into a number of WhatsApp groups split into smaller areas depending on which area of Marple, Marple Bridge or Mellor they lived in. When a request came in we sent out an outline request to the relevant group via WhatsApp – and whoever happened to be able to help out replied. We then contacted that person individually to give them the full details. In over 1,000 requests we’ve never had one go unanswered, and, indeed in some of the WhatsApp groups replies come in in split seconds – you need to be particularly speedy in Rose Hill and Hawk Green.
Longer term connections
For those without the trigger fingers necessary to grab the jobs on the WhatsApp group, we have also set up ‘buddies’. These are simply longer-term connections between someone who is self-isolating, and someone who is there to lend a hand. The volunteer might help with dog walking, getting in weekly shops, or just a regular chat on the phone. Kirsten Burgess is behind this and she, with help from the rest of the team, has connected over 40 sets of people up this way. Kirsten is a retired chemistry teacher, and has brought the same methodical common-sense approach to setting this up that has no doubt seen her cope with rooms full of teenagers and hazardous chemicals over the years. Kirsten works hard to match people she thinks will get on, and who live closely. She’s also put in place a check-in process so that, particularly in the early days, we can make sure it's working as well as it can, and help iron out problems. Just because the self-isolating person has been ‘buddied’ doesn’t mean they can’t come back to us, and we thought about how to help make sure that they had the details to hand if they needed. Kirsten developed lovely personal note-let cards, using a picture from local artist Ben Hardman, to send to people we had ‘buddied’. The notes in them are handwritten, but also printed on the cards are government guidance on what volunteers can and can’t be asked to do – such as not being able to come into houses. By making the cards a bit special, we hope they’d be saved, rather than consigned to the recycling pile! Local teenager Eddie Duncan-Rees cycled the hills of Romiley, Marple, Marple Bridge and Hawk Green delivering the first batch of 27 in April.
Kirsten Burgess: Zoë has a very gentle style, that has meant while she steered us, we all felt welcome and valued. Zoë has an amazing leadership style.
Dog walking has also been a popular activity with self-isolating people and volunteers alike, and our canine companions of Marple have soon learnt to get excited when they spot a volunteer coming down their path! The real strength of the buddying is the relationships that can develop over time, and that we hope will endure well beyond this crisis. This comes through when we check in, and we receive fantastic reports from people such as: “It’s going well, I’m trying to call her a couple times a week, she’s an absolutely lovely lady! Says she wants to meet me after all of this, which I’m very excited for! It’s honestly such a great idea this buddy system and I’m glad I can be part of it.”
Support from other organisations
Where someone seems to need more support than you would expect a neighbour to give, we have connected to other services. The Council, local GPs and the Stockport voluntary sector hub ‘The Prevention Alliance’ have been really helpful. There are other areas of the country where groups like ours have felt that Councils and others have tried to take control, or even stop them – but our experience has been positive.
We’ve also been supported by other local groups, including the New Mills and Marple Rotary Club, and Marple Sports Club. Their donations covered the costs of our phone lines, printing posters, and running our volunteer expenses system.
The group started with a Facebook initiative. The Facebook group, ably moderated by Dani Austin, became a thriving page, with all sorts of helpful and positive posts every day. Dani’s energy and generous spirit gave it a real heart, and those of us less fond of social media have been in awe of her. The group even generated its own weekly online quiz night, ably run by James Kemp. As the pandemic progressed and living with it became the ‘new normal’ we worked with the Marple Community Hub Facebook group to start to divert some of the things people were wanting to share over to them, easing the workload a bit for us.
Dani Austin: After being appointed Moderator of the Facebook Group by Dawn, slowly I got to know Zoë, Kirsty and Kirsten, who all made me feel very welcome. Zoë was immediately seen as the lead of the group: speaking with third parties; attending virtual weekly Covid-19 meetings; securing funding. Zoë was always inviting the admin team along to our virtual meetings, as she’s so lovely and wanting everyone to feel involved. While a working mum, Zoë still found the time to go shopping for others, help with answering the telephones/emails, and keeping on top of the overall organisation, ensuring the effectiveness and smooth running.
At the time of writing non-essential shops are beginning to re-open, and people starting to go out, with an expectation that ‘shielding’ people will be encouraged to be out and about after July. After over 1,800 calls and 1,000 ‘jobs’, the daily calls to the phone line are reducing to an average of 13, which is about half what they were two months earlier. This is fantastic, and means we can start to look ahead to what could be possible in the future. In the short term we know there is the possibility of a second wave, and also that some people may be very nervous about going back into busy shops, so we won’t leave anyone in the lurch.
Photo shows Mr and Mrs Haughton of Woodville Dr, who benefitted from the 1,000th ‘job’ completed by Marple Mutual Aid - a shopping trip undertaken by Steve King.
The scheme emerged, and was possible because of extraordinary circumstances, but has brought out connections, relationships and generosity that we want to become part of our everyday life. We have started to discuss amongst ourselves as volunteers, and with the people who have contacted us for help what has and hasn’t worked, and what we think we could do together in the future. So far 100% of our volunteers say they might want to be part of that. The main ‘complaint’ we have had is that people haven’t been able to help out as much as they would have liked.
We've started talking to other friends and allies across Marple, including people who have been working on similar initiatives to work out what we could do. Local Councillor Aron Thornley has been a great source of support from the beginning and has been helping us think about what we could evolve into. Its clear that it will be something quite different to what we are now. There will still be the impulse to be helpful, and to make a contribution to the community, and all of us will need help and support at different times of our lives. We hope we can build something that can sustain the spirit and generosity that we’ve experienced through the Mutual Aid scheme into the months and years ahead.
The entire initiative has only been possible because of the amazing volunteers who have stepped up and been the lifeblood of the scheme. For those of us who have been involved on the organisational side it has been a bit tiring and stressful at times - as you would expect, particularly when, up to mid-June, we had never even met each other! The constant willingness of so many people across our area to offer help and support has been what has kept everything going, and made it all worthwhile. That and, of course, the appreciation of people we’ve been able to help out, and local businesses and chemists. Whatever we morph into in the future the amazing memories of being part of something so spontaneous and community-spirited will stay forever.
Zoë Porter, 19th June 2020
Zoë receiving a small gift from Olivia White in her back garden via Cllr Aron Thornley