Brereton and Ravenhill
A village community whose volunteers gave up their time to care for sick and dying patients during COVID has received a new national award for their compassion. Residents of Brereton and Ravenhill in South Staffordshire have become the first UK community ever to be awarded ‘Compassionate Community Charter’ status.
During each of the national lockdowns, people in the parish came together to provide much needed support including a foodbank, shopping and a phone buddies’ befriending scheme. Recognising a desperate need, dedicated volunteers also gave up their time to hold the hands of sick and dying neighbours when families couldn’t be there.
“Twice we had to break into people’s houses when they were sick with COVID and wait for ambulances when resources were stretched,” said Sue Merriman, community support worker for the local lottery-funded group, Brereton Million. “We couldn’t help by standing at the door and telling the doctor what we could see so we had to break the rules to go into their homes and explain what we were seeing to get emergency care.
“It was a part of our work that we never advertised but it was vitally important. Some residents were too scared to go into hospital, so we stayed with them to hold their hand and give their partners a break. We’d stay all night sometimes so their carers could go to bed. We also worked with local doctors who would finish their day and come and spend an hour or two with residents who were dying.”
Although lockdown has ended, the community had already begun developing the connections and projects that started during the pandemic. It’s this sustained commitment to community support that has led to them being awarded Compassionate Community Charter status.
The charity behind the new scheme – Compassionate Communities UK – says this is first of many planned for cities, towns and neighbourhoods that can prove they meet strict criteria relating to kindness, compassion and cooperation.
Dr Julian Abel, director of Compassionate Communities UK, said the charity’s aim was to create communities where people would be healthier, happier and have a sense of belonging.
“We want to see a new social movement that recognises that compassion and kindness is as important as medicine,”
said Dr Abel.
“Studies show that the health of the population improves when people live in communities where they are supported to be active, creative and resourceful. Our new charter status will be awarded to neighbourhoods, towns and cities which demonstrate a sustained commitment to compassion across their community.
“That’s what we’ve seen in Brereton and Ravenhill over the pandemic and there’s a real commitment to build even more connections in the future. The community has built on the really strong foundations they already had in place to create a neighbourhood which is truly committed to helping residents and bringing people together.”
Through Brereton Million, village community groups were already connected and working together, raising funds for a playground among other things. But lockdown brought a whole new dimension to their work with Sue’s home being transformed into a food bank and numerous residents providing a hotline service for vulnerable neighbours.
“It all began when the pandemic hit and I spotted an elderly resident who should have been shielding on her way to the shop,” said Sue. “Her son had COVID and was locked in his room while she was sitting at home watching the news telling her she needed to stay indoors. It turned out she hadn’t eaten for four days and she was absolutely petrified.
“I sent her back home and went to the Co-op for her. That’s when we got talking about how there must be lots of residents like this. The Co-op said they could provide surplus bread and we started knocking on all the doors.”
Sue and her team of 100+ volunteers knocked on 3,500 doors not once but twice during the pandemic where they discovered more vulnerable residents as well as more and more people willing to help
“Every time we knocked a door we found a new problem, said Sue. “Kids with no pens or supplies for school, families struggling for food, disabled people whose support services had stopped. Mental health was at an all-time low. As the weeks went by, we’d got residents who were so low and lonely because they’d not spoken to anyone for weeks.
“As we went through the village, we kept appealing for people to help us and we got a volunteer co-ordinator who really jumped on board and started organising a mass of volunteers. Then we got a phone buddies co-ordinator who would get people to ring those lonely residents who didn’t have anyone to speak to. The same volunteers were also there for people when someone died to help, whether it was a listening ear or offering help with all the paperwork associated with dying.
“We had a food co-ordinator who would do brilliant appeals. That led to supermarket lorries turning up at my house with trucks loading up my living room.
“We created a craft group who made PPE because we couldn’t get any in the shops. There was a book and jigsaw group set up for residents who were used to going to community groups that had shut down.
“It just kept growing and growing.”
Despite all the community support bringing people together, Sue admits that there were tough times, both emotionally and physically, for some of the volunteers. “There were times where the phone never stopped ringing,” she said. “We were going from one crying resident to the next and I mean that with the greatest empathy.
“I’ll never forget one man who was too proud to tell his family he couldn’t afford to feed them so I arranged to meet him round the corner from his house so they would think he’d gone shopping.
“During the first round of door knocking we stopped a man from killing himself.
“The hardest thing was knowing that when someone was crying you couldn’t hug them. You’d be sent to someone’s house, and it was heart-breaking sometimes to have to walk away. That was quite hard to bear.”
One resident who benefited from the Brereton Buddies befriending scheme was Rob Cross who lost his wife Margaret to Motor Neurone Disease during COVID.
“I volunteered to be a buddy but I found I couldn’t actually cope with that,” said Rob, a former army officer who has no relatives nearby. “When I lost my wife, I found I was on the receiving end of the buddy system because I really needed the help. It was really helpful to be able to put something in the diary to say I was going to have a phone call on a particular day because it’s so easy to descend into the trough of despair. It’s made a huge difference to my life and I honestly don’t know how I would have coped without it.
“What matters is having people around you who care. It’s really very moving and I’m quite emotional about it.”
When vaccinations started, Brereton Million were able to fund taxis to take residents to the vaccination centre in Cannock.
“There was no public transport but we didn’t just book cabs, we sat with our local taxi company every evening and discussed every resident’s needs,” recalled Sue. “We spoke about whether they were in a wheelchair or whether they were anxious, and we arranged a bespoke trip for them every time, which is something we’re all very proud of.”
It wasn’t only vulnerable residents in Brereton who were grateful for the kind-hearted support – the volunteers themselves were just as thankful to be given a purpose.
“People come and hug us all the time and say they wouldn’t be here without us,” said Sue. “We’ve been left with a lot of widows and widowers who now know who to call. But it’s not just the residents who were glad of the support. The volunteers have said that we kept them going at a time when they didn’t know what to do. Rather than sitting at home twiddling their thumbs and losing their minds, they stepped up. In the end, the volunteers were as grateful as the residents we supported.”
Thanks to the group’s work with local teenagers during lockdown, the village have now created a memorial garden for people to remember their loved ones.
“The memorial is one of my favourite projects,” added Sue. “We run a local youth group and the teens came up with the idea because they don’t like graveyards so they wanted to have a place where they could go and reflect in their own way.
“The fact that they asked for this and have been a big part of the design and the making with our community teams speaks volumes. I think it’s just beautiful.
“The Compassionate Communities award is recognition to every single volunteer and resident that worked together. People will say: ‘I didn’t do a lot I just ran and got a prescription’ or ‘I just went and posted something’. Those volunteers don’t know what was in those envelopes that they posted or that prescription they collected. To those residents who feel like they only did five minutes, it meant two hours to me and to some of our other volunteers. Whether they did five minutes or ten months, we honestly thank every single one of them from the bottom of our hearts.”
Emma Hodges, chief executive of St Giles Hospice who is also a director of Compassionate Communities UK, said:
“Holding hands with somebody whilst they are dying, trying to get end of life care in place, working with the hospice and supporting bereaved children is the heart of what a compassionate community is about.
“That’s why it’s absolutely wonderful to be able to give the very first accredited Compassionate Community in the world to Brereton and Ravenhill who have been so inspiring over the last 18 months. It’s not about just about what the services are doing, what’s more important is how communities are rallying around people, being kind and being there for each other.
Presenting the award at an official ceremony last month, Amanda Milling MP for Cannock Chase, said: “The last 18 months have been a really difficult time and one of the things I’ve seen up and down the country is how community groups have come together to support people. That’s been so important at a time when a lot of people have been stuck at home, often in very difficult circumstances. For Brereton and Ravenhill to get the first accreditation is just absolutely magnificent and so well deserved.”
To hear more, click below for the short video clip that particularly focuses on palliative care of here for the full video or here for the Survival of the Kindest Podcast with Dr Julian Abel