Strabane volunteers making our community proud - Mayor
26 May 2020
Next week during Volunteers Week Derry and Strabane will have the opportunity to celebrate the immense volunteering effort that has powered the community response to COVID-19 since the emergency began to escalate here in March.
In her final days in office the Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District, Councillor Michaela Boyle, paid tribute to the work being carried out in her home town of Strabane and the surrounding areas, as she reflected on her time as Mayor in what has been a challenging few months for the City and District.
Last week Mayor Boyle joined the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, as she visited groups in Strabane who have been on the frontline delivering vital support to those in need. Looking ahead to Volunteers Week next week, she praised the remarkable work that is being done by local volunteers and thanked those who have dedicated their time to helping others.
"With only a week left before I hand over the chain of office, I wanted to really thank all those who have been working with our community support groups, to ensure the needs of our most vulnerable people are met at this very difficult time," she stressed.
"Volunteers Week presents us with the opportunity to thank all those who have given so generously of their time – over 860 of you have stepped up to support the response to COVID-19 which is just unbelievable.
"Strabane has always been community focused and it has been no surprise to me that the people here have rallied when needed – but the level of commitment and kindness has been unprecedented. My heartfelt thanks to all our volunteers, of all ages and backgrounds, who have been the absolute backbone of our resilience effort."
During last week's ministerial visit, Cllr Boyle introduced Minister Hargey to the team based at Fountain St Community Centre. Always a busy community hub, the centre has become a hive of industry in recent weeks, operating as a central distribution facility for vital aid in the Strabane area.
Aodhán Harkin is a community co-ordinator with the centre, working with Council, the Health Trust, National Lottery Community Fund and the Department to administer vital aid, as he explained.
"Volunteers have been involved primarily in the delivery of food parcels for the local area and on a Tuesday we have up to 20 people assisting with the distribution of food aid," he said.
"We have also been involved with the Strabane Hospitals Appeal Fund led by Centre Manager Mary Deery which was initiated by a local resident- who had to spend some time in hospital recovering from COVID-19. She had all her belongings taken away when she was moved to hospital in Belfast for treatment and wanted to ensure that others in the same situation had access to things like nightwear and toiletries.
"Everyone in Strabane has rallied behind the appeal and the centre here has been used as a drop off for donations. I think £10,000 of supplies were donated for distribution throughout the Western Trust area, going to Altnagelvin, Gransha, Omagh, Enniskillen and also local care homes. The response was unbelievable. When we first launched the appeal one local businessman actually opened his shop right away and brought two boxes of pyjamas over – there has been so much generosity."
A team of volunteers already works from the centre delivering a range of services, but from the beginning of lockdown Fountain St has been inundated with offers of help from the local community.
"People we maybe haven't seen for a while have reconnected with the centre, business people who have found themselves out of work, individuals of all ages and backgrounds have all come forward," Aodhán reveals.
"When the Minister was here I have to say she was very impressed at the work being done on the ground. She comes from a working class background herself so she knows the value of the community sector, but I think she was quite genuinely impressed at the strength of community spirit here.
"We're just one facility in a network of organisations who have rallied to provide community support, and it's become a cross-border effort as well with groups on the Donegal border also working with us to ensure a more effective response."
The Fountain St Centre has also become the base for a unique service dedicated to supporting frontline health workers, producing scrubs, masks and other vital PPE items. The Strabane Area Scrubs Group transforms old pillow cases, bed spreads, and other donated materials into protective clothing. Elayne McNicholl and Gillian Walker came up with the idea as lockdown began and issued an appeal for volunteers and materials, never thinking the result would develop into a virtual cottage industry, as Elayne explained.
"Gillian works in the Omagh Hospital and she and I had both come up with the same idea to try to assist with providing much needed PPE. We put an appeal out on Facebook and from that moment it really took off.
"Over 50 people came forward within just a few days– people self-isolating and looking for something to do, people no longer working, those who just wanted to help out. And people were just clearing their linen cupboards to donate material, as well as donations of rolls of fabric from businesses and other groups.
"We found that we had all the materials but no central facility to work from but the staff at the Fountain St Community Centre quickly offered us use of their sports centre. It's now developed into a full production line. Actually making the scrubs and masks is quite labour intensive so we have people stitching at home, then we have people doing the washing and ironing and others are packing them up. One of our local teachers Arthur McGarrigle is leading on the deliveries - it really is a total community effort.
"While we were overwhelmed by the response I wasn't surprised. Strabane has always had a very strong community spirit, there's a great sense of community responsibility. While some people may not have a lot they are always the first to give what they can.
"Fortunately the costs aren't very high and we only need small amounts of money to pay for things like thread and elastic and local individuals and businesses have been very good supplying prizes for raffles etc to generate funds.
"I think for me personally it's just been such a rewarding experience. While we've been completely taken by surprise by this virus and the situation is essentially beyond our control, being able to do something to help has given me something to focus on, even if it's something small. Sometimes it's the small things that can make a big difference."
People can support the Strabane Area Scrubs group through their Facebook page where you can find details of where to donate materials or volunteer. Members are also crocheting and knitting rainbows and teddy bears to generate funding for materials.
Volunteers Week will launch on June 1 with a national campaign highlighting the value of volunteering focusing on a range of key areas. Civic buildings in Derry and Strabane will be illuminated in celebration of our local volunteering heroes!