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Ballyarnett DEA Groups rally to protect and support local community

15 May 2020
Greater Shantallow Area Partnership is located right at the heart of the Ballyarnett District Electoral Area, where it offers a range of support services spanning all generations. For the last eight weeks, the organisation has seen its remit jump to include a wide array of emergency aid initiatives as it works together with the local community support team tasked with alleviating the impact of COVID-19.
Ciara Ferguson is Manager of the organisation, which covers an extensive area from Culmore to Pennyburn, and includes some of the city's most impoverished communities. As the city moved early into lockdown, the Ballyarnett community support team were quick to mobilise in response to the crisis. 16 Local community groups got together for a meeting on March 16 to coordinate a plan of action which was immediately set into motion. As Ciara recalls, their emergency phoneline went live on March 18th - and it hasn't stopped ringing. Though the team are now looking ahead and planning a practical exit strategy and a return to normal service, whatever that new normal will be.
"Between the groups there must be roughly 100 community and voluntary sector staff who have been redeployed to the Ballyarnett DEA Community Support Team in the local area and who are assisting with deliveries of essential items and a number of other services," she explains.
"At first we were providing emergency food aid for those isolating, and there was big demand for personal hygiene products, hand sanitiser, baby products and household products as concern grew about supplies within the community. GSAP had already been working with the Churches Voluntary Trust to operate a food bank in the area so we had experience of operating this kind of service.
"But this has now been enhanced with the support of donors and other partner organisations such as Apex HA and Fare Share NI. They have enabled us to extend the range of food available for those in need, with fresh produce and meat to help bulk out the basic goods being supplied.
"There are such a wide range of services being delivered by the groups in the area including the Shantallow Community Residents Association, Greater Shantallow Community Arts, and Leafair Community Association, Off The Streets Youth Initiative, Rainbow Child & Family Centre, Resource Centre Derry to name but a few. We have volunteers and staff on the ground 9am-5pm Monday to Friday. "They're out there delivering food boxes, activity /self care support packs to preschool, primary and post-primary school children and elderly, hot food, prescriptions, fuel vouchers, even pet food - anything that people need. Just this week we received 40 gardening grow packs from Groundworks NI – any scheme that has something to offer in terms of helping health and wellbeing we apply for it on behalf of local people."
Derry City and Strabane District Council, the Health Trust and Department for Communities have been working closely with the community support groups in the resilience effort, utilising the partnerships established through the Local Community Planning Partnerships and drawing on the expertise of local groups like GSAP to ensure help is channelled most effectively.
"We are so lucky in terms of where we're located here in Northside," Ciara admits. "The surrounding businesses have all been so supportive – we've been overwhelmed by their response. Supervalu have been working in partnership with us regarding our food orders, the Village Butchers have been supplying fresh produce, Bits'n'Pieces have been supplying household products, Wafer Ltd have been donating sweets, Lynch’s Supervalu at Skeoge had been taking customer donations of Food supplies – they have all rallied to offer their support. Every week we have people leaving in anonymous donations.
"Other groups and individuals have been fundraising – for example Steelstown Brian Óg's have organised a Kickathon, and their members have raised £2,300 so far. There have been so many gestures of good will, everyone is doing their bit. People are being so innovative and creative in coming up with ways to help. Shantallow Community Residents Association for example are running a birthday scheme – delivering birthday packs to people in the local community. The local youth and sport groups have been involved in the delivery of sports activity packs and encouraging people to stay active during lockdown. Individuals have been making and donating PPE for our staff and volunteers.
"Our local Councillors and MLA’s have also been doing their bit, with representatives from all parties volunteering their time down here. And we put them to work! They come in and put on their gloves and masks and they're answering the phones, helping with deliveries and assisting the public.
"As time goes on we're now looking to the future and how we will begin to return to some level of normal service. While there is still the demand we will continue to respond, but we're also looking at how we can adapt our regular support services and find new ways to deliver things like training and skills to the local community online and in other ways.
"This has always been a strong community and that spirit of resilience will see us through this crisis."
One of the many volunteers who have rallied to support the community effort is Caroline Ming. As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression over the years, Caroline wouldn't have believed a few months ago that she would have a vital role to play helping others. But taking inspiration from her daughter, who is working as a frontline Care Assistant at Owen Mor care home, Caroline now devotes her time to assisting the community COVID-19 effort.
"I have suffered from anxiety and other health issues for a long time, and although I used to work in the community sector I've been at home a number of years because of those issues," she reveals. "My father died just a week before the lockdown began – we were lucky in that he had a funeral surrounded by his family and friends. But I was feeling quite low.
"I was watching my daughter leave every night to cover her nightshift at the care home where she works and her commitment to the job which she just loves. She's only 20 and I think I realised that now was the time for me to step up and try to help others. It's been an unbelievable experience, and one which has really helped my own mental health in terms of the fulfilment I've experienced through being able to help. There are so many positive stories about people who have learned to adapt and survive in the most challenging circumstances.
"There's a whole network of support out there – this isn't just about delivering food to people. For example myself and my daughter stopped the car one day after seeing an elderly man struggling with his shopping. We offered to take his bags to the house for him, and afterwards we found out he had lived in London for 40 years and had returned to Derry and didn't really have any anyone to support him. We checked back on him a few days later and brought him a window box, something for him to care for and help pass the time. We were able to get him connected to Good Morning Galliagh, who now check in on him regularly. They can find out if he needs anything, even just a chat, so he knows there are people there to look out for him.
"There are so many different community services but they are all linked in and working together. I've been working with SCRA as well to provide activity packs for autistic children, and also adults with learning disabilities. We try to find out what their interests are and source things like jigsaws and other activities which will encourage them to follow the guidance and stay at home, but ensure that they're having fun and staying engaged."
And according to Caroline there are some positive signs that some of those worst impacted have been able to find their feet thanks to the support of the community.
"It's been so rewarding being part of this network and seeing how it is enabling people and helping them cope through these difficult times. We were contacted today by one of our local doctors' surgeries to let us know that one of the families we've been providing food aid to doesn't need our help any more. They had been allocated a priority delivery slot by one of the supermarkets so could now order their own shopping – but they wanted to pass on their thanks for all the help they have received. It was great to get that call and see that people are regaining their independence - hopefully we will see more and more families like this. People here are survivors – but sometimes they just need a little help to get them back on their feet."
Greater Shantallow Area Partnership is just one of a wide network of community support organisations involved in the resilience effort against COVID-19. If you live in the Ballyarnett area and need assistance you can contact them on 028 7135 8787.
For information on the community support groups in areas right across Derry and Strabane and other community information and services go to https://www.derrystrabane.com/communitysupport