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April-May 2021 | Features

The most challenging of years

The most challenging of years

Twelve months on from the outbreak of COVID-19 in the British Isles, what has the impact been and how has Rotary volunteers responded?

Who could possibly have imagined a year ago, at the start of the first lockdown, how COVID-19 would change lives in an unprecedented way?

The biggest societal shift since the Second World War, which has claimed the lives of 126,000 people in the UK.

The stealth-like nature of Coronavirus will, undoubtedly, leave a permanent scar on society. This most savage of killers has exposed a vulnerability which no man-made war could have ever inflicted.

But the pandemic has also drawn together communities.

Social barriers, which may have once existed, have come down. Neighbours have looked out for each other. The spirit of the Blitz witnessed two generations ago, has been rekindled amid the carnage of Covid.

At the heart of the battle has been the brave battalion of health workers and keyworkers, many of them Rotarians, who have kept our nations going. Some have sadly paid with their lives to help others.

But since March 2020 and the first lockdown, Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland has been at the forefront of volunteer efforts. It has been a defining moment for Rotary in these isles.

rotary volunteers

since March 2020 and the first lockdown, Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland has been at the forefront of volunteer efforts.

Cheryle Berry from Clay Cross Rotary in Derbyshire is co-leader of Rotary’s Humanitarian Service team.

She is full of admiration for the rapid response of Rotarians to the crisis over the past 12 months.

“This has been the most challenging year that many of us have ever experienced,” she said.

“Through membership of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP), as well as working with resilience networks across Great Britain & Ireland, Rotarians have responded magnificently.

“There has been an unprecedented need for volunteers throughout the country, who have been helping at vaccination and testing centres with stewarding, parking, administration, transport, vaccination and after care.

“The work has always been done with a smile and a cheerful word.

“Our communities have seen Rotarians in a different light, as people who are not just fund-raisers, but doers.”

This has been the most challenging year that many of us have ever experienced,”

The Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) is a partnership of local and national voluntary, as well as community sector organisations – of which Rotary is a part.

It was formed in 2017 following lessons learned from major incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire. The idea is to bring a more joined-up approach to tackling a crisis, such as COVID-19.

Cheryle has been closely supported by Peter Dowse from Brentwood Breakfast Rotary in Essex, who has been the Rotary GB&I Resilience Lead.

Over the past year, the former Metropolitan Police officer has brought together a network of Rotarians to serve as District Resilience Officers and VCSEP Cell Leads.

He has co-ordinated the volunteering, as well as providing advice and training.

There has been an unprecedented need for volunteers throughout the country, who have been helping at vaccination and testing centres with stewarding, parking, administration, transport, vaccination and after care.”

The third member of the team has been Brenda Parsons from Rotary Satellite Orpington in Kent. “Brenda has been our pioneer with the VCSEP, upon which we have built our structure,” explained Cheryle.

“As Rotary Cell Lead for the south-east, Brenda was the first to develop many procedures and policies which have been used as examples of good practice.”

Cheryle pointed out how, throughout the pandemic, Rotarians have been stalwarts in supporting their communities.

Clubs have been working with the vulnerable and isolated, helping with shopping, collecting prescriptions and providing transport.

In the south-east, from Essex round to the south coast, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and parts of south-east London, Brenda has been co-ordinating resilience team efforts.

Their response is typical of what has been happening with Rotarians nationwide, and replicated many times over.

In District 1120, which covers Kent, Medway, south-east London and East Sussex, Rotarians were already involved in resilience activities before the pandemic, having received training to support rest centres, and flood wardens.

rotary volunteer wearing mask

Clubs have been working with the vulnerable and isolated, helping with shopping, collecting prescriptions and providing transport.

Brenda explained: “In response to the VCSEP, we set up 14 geographical areas with its own co-ordinator and each club has provided a lead Rotarian. This has enabled quick and targeted responses from Rotarians willing to travel to meet needs.

“Since March 2020, a Corona Central team has met every two weeks to review progress, to identify and provide support needed and solve issues.

“This is chaired by the resilience officer. We hold a database of all activities which have been undertaken since last March.”

As with many Rotary clubs nationwide, the District has responded to a call from schools to provide laptops supporting students’ home learning during lockdown.

The south-east England district has provided more than 300 laptops.

Beckenham and Margate Rotary clubs have each provided 100 computers, as well as raising more than £10,000 in donations to buy further IT equipment.

“All five districts are involved with supporting local food banks or food-related projects for those in need,” added Brenda. “Rotarians have been collecting, packing or delivering, even on Christmas Day.

“Several clubs have been engaged with sewing projects for hospitals and the homeless, with more than 5,000 scrub bags provided.

In District 1120, which covers Kent, Medway, south-east London and East Sussex, Rotarians were already involved in resilience activities before the pandemic, having received training to support rest centres, and flood wardens.”

“Rotarians have also been raising funds for local charities and front-line workers, using some new innovative and interesting approaches.

“All districts have members who are on the front line working and some of who have returned to work in healthcare settings after retirement.”

Now, in a bid to support the largest immunisation programme in history, Rotarians have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with health workers at vaccination centres across the British Isles.

In Lancashire, both Carnforth and Clitheroe Rotary Clubs have been mentioned in The Guardian and Daily Mirror for their efforts to support vaccination efforts during the current crisis.

Clitheroe Rotarian, Bill Honeywell, has been co-ordinating a 100-strong vaccination team of Rotarians and locals at the Clitheroe Health Centre.

Bill has organised them into shifts so that a group of them are always on hand to marshal cars and help guide often frail pensioners in from the cold.

“They’re just so grateful to be here,” Bill told the Daily Mirror. “A lot of them haven’t been out for maybe 10 months, so it’s a thrill just to be out in the open.

“For them, to be able to go away smiling after having the jab is a joy to behold. Their relatives are all incredibly relieved and thankful. We’ve had so many tins of biscuits dropped off as thank-you that we’re going to pile on the pounds!”

Rotary District 1285 stretches across the Cheshire Plain north via the Manchester metropolis to the Yorkshire border, and also takes in part of Staffordshire, as well as the Isle of Man.

Resilience chief Mike Wilson said that Bolton Lever Rotary had produced a YouTube video of its work during Covid to show what can be achieved.

Rotarians have also been raising funds for local charities and front-line workers, using some new innovative and interesting approaches.”

“Rotarians are doing varied projects, providing PPE equipment, laptops and tablets from homes and hospices, and help with local food banks,” he said.

“Clubs have also provided help at COVID-19 testing and assisting at vaccine health centres and local rugby grounds.”

In Wales and Scotland, Cheryle Berry has been meeting with Red Cross teams.

They lead the volunteer sector in both countries looking at ways of direct Rotary engagement with their work, and it is a similar story in Ireland where Rotarians have started volunteer activities.

In Ireland, District 1160 is split between Northern Ireland and the Republic. “In the north, we have had Rotarians volunteering at vaccination clinics since February through the organisation Volunteer Now,” explained Ireland District Governor, Conny Ovesen from Youghal Rotary.

“We have had Rotarians from Enniskillen and Armagh Rotary clubs involved. They’re being called upon to help with parking, registration and sitting with people after they’ve got the jab at some of the larger vaccination centres.”

Collette O’Neill from Cork Bishopstown Rotary is liaising over Rotary Ireland’s involvement with the vaccination programme in the Republic of Ireland.

She said: “The Communications Branch of the Health Service Executive (HSE) reached out to Rotary Ireland inviting us to join their COVID-19 Vaccine Community Network, alongside other volunteer and charitable organisations.

“The purpose of this network is to create a team who, over the coming months, will work with stakeholder groups to ensure that people who are due to get their vaccine next have the information that they need from a safe and trusted source.

“The role of Rotary Ireland is to support the HSE in the provision of public information, advertising and provide an easy accessible forum where questions will be answered and fears can be addressed.”

Collette meets regularly with the Irish Government’s HSE. One crucial role Irish Rotarians will be playing is communication about the vaccination programme.

All Rotarians will be encouraged to download a Covid tracker app, to heighten awareness and support the programme.

In South Wales, District Governor Alison Sutherland from Cardiff Bay Rotary, said that up until the beginning of March, Rotarians had little involvement with the vaccinations because they have been unable to have the relevant risk assessments.

“We are still in lockdown,” she said.

“Many of our members would be excluded from volunteering on the grounds of their age.”

Welsh Rotarians have been involved with innovative ways of fund-raising and community activities. Newport Uskmouth Rotary began the collection of old laptops which were refurbished and then passed onto youngsters for home schooling.

“This has now been picked up by at least another seven Rotary clubs and has the involvement of our IT Officer in the refurbishment side,” added Alison.

“Newport Uskmouth not only started this but, as a result, 80 new Chrome books were donated.”

In North Wales, Rotarians have also been focused this year on supplying laptops to schools and supporting food banks.

Meanwhile, Holyhead Rotarians have been volunteering at the town’s vaccination centre and supporting the local hospice food banks.

District Governor, David Hartley, from Maghull and Aughton Rotary, believes that Rotary’s response to the pandemic has boosted its profile and image in the community.

He said: “The wider question is whether Rotary will have gained ground through Zoom meetings and new initiatives, or lost ground with the deaths of members, loss of interest and the decimation of fund-raising.

“But this is hardly a Welsh thing.

“As dreadful as COVID is, it has certainly opened opportunities with many clubs who dine, giving what they would have spent on meals to local charities.”

Calum Thomson from Tranent Rotary is District Governor for Southern Scotland.

“The global pandemic has hit us hard with nobody escaping its clutches. It felt sometimes like this virus was in control of all our lives,” he said.

“Within our Rotary world, we have had to rise to the challenge and learn to adapt.

“That third part of the Rotary International Strategic Plan – increasing our ability to adapt – has never been more prescient.

“I have seen clubs immediately adopt and implement new technology into their way of doing things. Attendance remained the same, increasing in some clubs while the fun and fellowship remained.

“Successful clubs have adapted in a positive manner and the positivity is worth sharing. Online social events such as quizzes and whisky tasting spring to mind.

“Fund-raising did happen – from operating an e-Bay online shop to socially distanced golf tournaments it was possible.

“Projects in the community were not cancelled, where there was a need, Rotary responded.

“Our district has tried different ways to keep the word ‘cancel’ out of the Rotary lexicon.”

Cheryle Berry believes the impact of Rotary’s work is now reaching out to all sections of the community.

She explained: “This is not just Rotary in Action with the vaccination programme, but continuing our help with food banks, supporting the isolated and vulnerable, providing laptops for young people, providing personal protective equipment for hospitals and care homes and campaigning for social distancing.

“The list is endless.

“Rotary’s response has gained us new partnerships with voluntary and statutory organisations which will continue.

“And we have gained new Rotarians from volunteers who have enjoyed working with us.

“Yes, it has been a challenging year, but one where we can all be proud to be Rotarians.”

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