Birmingham is the UK’s first accredited Compassionate City
The people of Birmingham have been recognised for their compassion in the way communities have supported each other during some of the most difficult times, by being crowned the UK’s first Compassionate City on the 14th March.
Accredited by Compassionate Communities UK, the key to gaining this recognition is bringing together all areas of the local community, to provide support, space, togetherness and understanding for those undergoing the experiences of death, dying, loss and caregiving.
The Compassionate City title is part of an international movement with the participation of cities worldwide. The purpose is to build compassion as a major value of life across all sectors of civic society, putting kindness at the heart of health and care strategies in all parts of society.
Birmingham is already recognised as a Healthy City. However, community leaders sought to secure the Compassionate City title to bolster its commitment towards people who are grieving, living with a serious illness and caregivers.
The examples that are being celebrated as part of this award include the annual events normalising issues of death, dying and loss by community group BrumYODO, and the commitment to Compassionate Community Connectors to ensure citizens are more confident in supporting each other and access to peer support in schools, workplaces and communities.
Members of the Compassionate City Birmingham Network came together at the Library of Birmingham to celebrate the achievement and invite others to get involved. This was also an opportunity to acknowledge the compassion and kindness of the city’s residents, and for people to share the good news.
Councillor John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, Community Safety and Equalities at Birmingham City Council, said: “Birmingham is a city that offers a warm welcome to all and one where we want everyone to thrive.
“Our commitment to the Compassionate City Charter is a great way to recognise the kindness and compassion across our communities and build on work that’s already taken place and ensure all of our services, schools, employers and citizens can feel confident supporting people living with a serious illness or who are grieving.”
Dr Julian Abel, Director of Compassionate Communities UK, said: “Death, dying, loss and caregiving affects us all. We care for people close to us many times in our lives and we also face our own death. How we die, how we grieve, is affected deeply by the people around us. This is why it is important to understand that everyone can contribute and help, whether this be in our schools, our workplaces, our places of worship, our neighbourhoods and all of the other civic parts of lives.
“This accreditation is more important now than ever before as people are still recovering from a global pandemic. Nothing shows more support than the community coming together to combat loneliness and ensuring that people know they are not isolated, especially during the difficult moments of death, dying, loss and caregiving.”
The Compassionate City Birmingham Network is keen for businesses, schools, community organisations and individuals to get involved in future events and initiatives.
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
Like all communities, Whittington has its fair share of compassionate individuals, but they don’t always have the opportunity to blossom. Sometimes when people recognise a clear need they do respond. This was the case when the local vicar, Rev Paul Bothwell, talked about the need for a hospice in the area and people responded. Influential people in the Community joined him and helped develop the idea and market it throughout the Community. Many joined the crusade and helped to fundraise and once our incredible hospice was completed, most went on to become volunteers and many from the village and elsewhere still do.
One of those initial key influencers who went on to become one of the original trustees and then a long serving volunteer was ‘Fairy’ Gopsill. I met Fairy in the early 90’s and we soon became good friends despite our significant differences, he was 6ft plus and I am 5’4”, he was a Lt Colonel in the Gurkha regiment and an expert in Jungle Warfare, and I got thrown out of the school cadets. When we first met, I had recently returned from studying on an international programme at MIT in Boston. Whilst there I spent a lot of time exploring why some Companies were successful and others not, especially by the impact of different leadership styles. Back home I was often made to feel uncomfortable because my style was so different to many others that I worked with, but I was pleased to find on the programme that there were quite a few who behaved like me. I was even more pleased to see that some of the most successful international companies were run by people who had characteristics in their style like mine. It was even more surprising that back home I should meet somebody who had operated in a totally different environment to me but had the same basic beliefs about leadership as I did, and he even played a role in leadership development at Sandhurst. Maybe in the current context we would refer to it as compassionate leadership.
Chatting one day we discovered that we were both visiting two vulnerable guys in the village and ‘Fairy’ suggested that we should have a regular monthly lunch with them. We asked two more to join us and a lady in the village cooked a super two course meal for us followed by cheese and biscuits and coffee and I brought a bottle of wine. Over the next few months several more men joined us, and Fairy asked me to write our ‘Mission’.
The Whittington Men’s Lunch Group was formed in November 1999 specifically for men from within the community who, for a variety of reasons – such as disability, loss of employment or retirement – missed men’s company. The Group aims to provide friendship and mutual support or practical help when needed.
Clearly there will always be a need for a strong contingent of fit, retired men within the Group who would welcome the opportunity to help provide that practical help and support that others might need, whilst at the same time enjoying socializing with male company over lunch.
This mission is at the top of all our circulars updating members of any changes in membership, contact details and lunch dates. It informs new members what we are all about and reminds existing members.
At the same time ‘Fairy’ wrote a short prayer:
Lord, thank you for our friendship and food today, and for those who prepared it.
Help us not to feel bitter and prejudiced in difficult times or to take things for granted and remind us always of our responsibility to care for those who need it.
Sadly, Fairy is no longer with us but his legacy lives on. In the 22 years since we started, we have started opened every meeting with this prayer even though only a very small percentage of the group attend Church regularly.
The simple formula for the lunch has always remained the same which we believe is one of the reasons for our ongoing success. We meet at the bar in the Church Hall and have up to 30min chat over a glass of wine or beer; sit down at one of the round tables for 8; listen to our prayer and enjoy the meal and accompanying chat. We try to ensure that new or vulnerable members are made to feel comfortable.
There are no rules, no committee, and the payment, (£15 recommended at present), is dropped into the original black honesty box donated by Fairy. We try to ensure that those we know are short put in what they can afford, and others compensate for them. We now have 5 ladies who look after us and we look after them socially & financially. A volunteer sorts the wine, another volunteer sorts the money paying the ladies, the food and for the wine and another does the admin. Membership numbers have ranged over the years between 60 and 70 with ages ranging between mid- seventies and 100. The numbers of younger fitter men are controlled to ensure the ladies can cope with their limited cooking facilities.
It is inevitable that with an age range such as this and a significant number of widowers, that support is often needed. Visits to the likes of the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, a 50-mile round trip, were common as well as more local medical visits and help in the home.
In 2013 the village was approached to set up a Good Neighbour Scheme by the County Council and they appointed somebody to facilitate this. It is fair to say that a very significant proportion of the community, including the Vicar and the leader of the Parish Council at the time, were positively against the idea. To be told by the County Council that Whittington, which was a vibrant community which had lots of different organisations, needed such a scheme went down with many like a lead balloon.
However, those of us organising the Men’s Lunch Group knew of the need there which we were not fulfilling in the way we would like and, therefore saw that a Good Neighbour Scheme could be very effective in our community. From the very start we hoped that such a scheme could link some of the good, but insular, organisations in the village together.
The representative of the County Council set up a very small steering group and the Chair and secretary came from the Men’s Lunch Group with enthusiastic support from a retired vicar who lived in the village and knew from her work that there was a need. The group set about defining that need and what a Good Neighbour scheme could need to do to address that need. After 12months the contract of the County Council representative concluded, and the Steering Group decided to set a Management Committee to officially launch the Scheme in the village. Now it was clearly a scheme ‘Run by local people for local people’.
It took another 4 months to set up a VOIP telephone system, create a database for info about clients and volunteers, appoint 14 Duty Officers to run the scheme and write a volunteer handbook. Perhaps not surprisingly, half of those first Duty Officers were members of the Men’s Lunch Group. In May 2015 we went live. From the very start the scheme grew rapidly mainly through word of mouth – much more effective than numerous leaflet drops! Since that time, we have supported 200 people in the Community, we currently have around 100 clients on our books and 70 volunteers. We not only transport clients to medical appointments, hairdressers and fulfill numerous other tasks – see attached- but we have regular social get-togethers to try to reduce loneliness and address the mental & physical health problems that go with it.
This year we were exceedingly proud to receive the ‘Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service’ with the Citation ‘Providing help, support and opportunities for social interaction to vulnerable and lonely villagers.’
Chair, Whittington & Fisherwick Good Neighbour Scheme.
Compassionate Communities UK (CC-UK) presented Whittington and Fisherwick with the award this week to coincide with the first International Compassionate Communities Day.
Members of the Whittington and Fisherwick Good Neighbour Scheme have supported vulnerable and disabled residents over the past six years, receiving support from a range of local organisations along the way, including St Giles Hospice.
Peter Ellis, chair of trustees for CC-UK, said:
“To achieve Compassionate Community status requires demonstration that a place is coming together across different sectors, schools, businesses, care providers and most importantly citizens to support each other on issues to do with death, dying and loss.
“What is clear in Whittington and Fisherwick is that the Good Neighbour Scheme has become a focus in bringing the community together along with the contribution from St Giles Hospice, the parish council and others.
“On evaluating the evidence towards accreditation, the panel was very impressed and was in no doubt that the village deserves this award.”
Peter Ellie, CC-UK
Ian Leech, community engagement manager at St Giles Hospice, said that, in addition to working with local schools and hosting events, the hospice had provided facilities for community groups to meet as well as delivered sessions on care planning, funeral wishes, dementia friends training and understanding bereavement.
“Any way that we can help and do our bit for the village and for the people who live here, we’ll do it.
“Ultimately we want to be a part of Whittington village, not apart from it, and I think we do that very well thanks to the Good Neighbour Scheme.”
Ian Leech, St Giles Hospice
“The neighbourhood has always pulled together”
Whittington resident Val Brocklebank said volunteers for the Good Neighbour Scheme had been particularly supportive during lockdown, popping round with treats and taking residents to and from vaccination appointments.
“I don’t know what I’d do without them – the scheme has given me some human contact and company.
“I think they’re the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened in this village and we’re very fortunate to have them.”
Cllr Garry Hyde, chair of Whittington and Fisherwick Parish Council, added:
“This is a fantastic award and I’m so pleased the hard work of all our village groups and residents has been recognised in this way.
“The neighbourhood has always pulled together and looked after the community, even more so since the Covid pandemic, so this award means the world to us.”
Cllr Garry Hyde, Whittington and Fisherwick Parish Council