How Peterborough’s ‘inspirational’ voluntary sector united during coronavirus crisis

The challenges of tackling the coronavirus pandemic have been immense, but the mobilisation of voluntary and community groups in Peterborough has been “inspirational” according to the chief executive of the city’s charity network.
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Leonie McCarthy has seen first-hand just how much effort has been made across Peterborough to deliver vital food and medicine supplies to the most vulnerable, not to mention the social effects the crisis has had on so many.

The chief executive of the Peterborough Council for Voluntary Service (PCVS) was probably expecting a more relaxing way of celebrating the organisation’s 40th anniversary this year, but despite the immense pressures of helping to tackle a once-in-a-generation global health pandemic she has been enthused by how the city has risen to the challenge.

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“Initially, we set up a small group which soon became a large group. In those early days we were getting 50 to 60 calls a day at Peterborough’s (coordination) hub and they would send on the calls to us they couldn’t deal with,” she told the Peterborough Telegraph.

Leonie McCarthy, CEO of PCVSLeonie McCarthy, CEO of PCVS
Leonie McCarthy, CEO of PCVS

“It was incredibly busy with people out and about from first thing in the morning until late at night delivering food parcels, making sure people had their medicine, checking in on people.

“Over time and with the changes in lockdown things are starting to quieten down. People are able to have their families support them more than they could in their early days.

“It’s been very unifying for the sector. When we work together we are much stronger than the sum of our parts. That’s been very refreshing, it has been exciting, and it’s been inspirational in the sense I feel it has demonstrated what can be achieved when we work together towards the same outcomes.

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“The interesting thing was our diversity and our difference is what made it so effective because we had lots of lenses to look at issues.”

PCVS is the umbrella organisation for the voluntary sector in Peterborough, but like most charities it has had to adjust to a more challenging financial picture during a period of austerity.

It currently receives £40,000 a year from the city council which it uses to draw in money from outside funding pots and provide support for volunteers across the city.

Its 25 members of staff currently deliver around £2 million of projects, with PCVS working with more than 5,000 groups across Peterborough.

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This can range from local neighbourhood watch and refugee community groups to people working on environmental projects or organisations assisting young people.

PCVS currently has more than 500 voluntary groups as members.

Leonie sees PCVS’ roles as encouraging the volunteer sector to “flourish” with communities able to “reach their potential”.

This certainly became the case during Covid-19 where a range of different issues had to be tackled, while at times there was confusion from different groups providing similar services, such as food banks popping up across the city.

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Fortunately, everyone was soon able to work together to provide a more cohesive system of support.

Leonie explained: “We set up a forum for everybody that was doing food in the city to come together so we could reduce the waste, direct food where it needed to go, and anybody who wanted to run a food provision would be able to ask everybody who came in for a food parcel ‘did they need any other support which we were missing?’

“We could then provide debt advice, benefits advice, advice for families where there would be support for them, advice for youth programmes.”

A number of groups to look at specific issues were also formed. For instance, non-UK nationals were unable to gain access to IT equipment, so a group was set up to look at IT access which then included older people.

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A sub-group to look at getting IT equipment to people in the city sprung up afterwards, while there were also groups for domestic violence and mental health due to a spike in individuals suffering from both.

PCVS was then able to successfully apply for funding to get specialists in to provide support, the result being that counselling is available for anybody in the city.

A tackling poverty group was also formed, and people seeking help for one problem were then able to be referred to a range of support.

It is this system which Leonie wants to see operated across Peterborough in the future, and there is excitement that PCVS has been selected for a ‘Gestalt-based intervention’ scheme in the voluntary sector which Leonie said will be the first of its kind internationally.

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According to The Gestalt Centre: “Gestalt practitioners help people to focus on their immediate thoughts, feelings and behaviour and to better understand the way they relate to others. This increased awareness can help people to find a new perspective, see the bigger picture and start to effect changes.”

Leonie hopes this form of intervention during a time of increasing societal differences will help to “make a difference to the resilience and wellbeing of those volunteers who support individuals and local communities to flourish”.

She added: “I truly believe it’s possible to effect that kind of change in humanity where we begin to accept ourselves and others, without judgement but with love.”

Helping to care for the carers

The overall aim of the Gestalt project is to “demonstrate how such an intervention designed to ‘improve self-awareness of self and how we make contact’ can lead to better mental health and increased understanding and acceptance of others”.

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PCVS said: “We witness daily significant and increasing levels of stress, anxiety and sickness absence in the local sector due to growing demands on services with reduced resources.

“We are witnessing, in particular, the impact on people working with excluded and marginalised citizens: people with disabilities and long term conditions, families in poverty, domestic violence and drug and alcohol dependency.

“In their urgent need to support vulnerable people in times of crisis, volunteers and staff are feeling disempowered and unable to express their own needs for relational support and care.

“As a result, these practitioners feel a loss of sense of ‘self’ and are unable to maintain healthy boundaries with ‘other’. Instead of being present and open for dialogue, empathy and nourishing contact, individuals are exhausted and have little time or energy to build enabling relationships.”

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Under the project, PCVS is working to bring people together in ‘safe spaces’, with qualified Gestalt practitioners, to “experience self-awareness, acceptance and discover how they make contact with the world”.