Northern Soul and People’s Powerhouse are continuing our partnership to share good news stories about businesses, people and communities coming together in the North of England during the COVID-19 crisis.

This week, we chat to Carol Fildes and Jackie Hallen, service coordinators at Halliwell Befriending Service, a Bolton organisation which supports older people through a volunteer befriending scheme as well as through activity groups and coffee mornings.

Northern Soul: What inspired you to start Halliwell Befriending Service?

The service was originally established in 1994 by a practice nurse and a receptionist at a local GP surgery after they realised that many patients who were released from hospital, and were also socially isolated, had a much slower recovery rate or multiple hospital admissions. The service was not only a great way to reduce isolation for the patient and raise their well-being via social contact, but it also reduced the uptake of essential services including the NHS.

NS: What challenges have you faced during the COVID-19 pandemic

We have had to change the way we deliver services. The purpose of Halliwell Befriending Service is to reduce isolation and it has been a challenge to provide support in the way that isolated people really need. Our face to face visits and activities stopped during lockdown. We began using more technology for communication which was difficult, especially for those who are unable to use apps like Zoom and Facebook. Our volunteers and staff are now working differently, but still just as enthusiastically and passionately, to gain good outcomes for our beneficiaries even though many of our volunteers have been shielding themselves.

We have provided over 2,500 hours of well-being phone calls to existing and new clients and over 50 new clients have been referred for these calls since March 2020. Our volunteers and staff have also spent 1,000 hours completing shopping tasks because of COVID-19 and delivered over 300 activity packs, books, jigsaws and other activities to the most isolated households. Volunteers from the Bolton branch of Lloyds Bank have been helping with calls and several community volunteers have been in contact. We are delighted to have been able to continue helping older people throughout the pandemic. 

Betty, Halliwell Befriending ServicesNS: How has the community been affected by the crisis?

Unfortunately, many people have become more isolated because of the pandemic and less socially connected.

NS: And how has the community come together?

We have seen a real growth in community spirit. Both volunteers and management have stepped up and embraced working differently and have been really supportive. Clients who are shielding have shown increased interest in digital technology and have also offered their time to ring others who might be in need.

NS: Have you been surprised by the reaction to your work during this time?

We were surprised by how much the service could do even though we are having to operate differently. We were also surprised by how we could help many people who may not have been able to use technology previously to download WhatsApp and Zoom so we can help them digitally during lockdown.

The work of our volunteers and staff has been recognised by the Mayor of Bolton and we have received a funding extension from Bolton council until March 2021. Unfortunately, the Lottery Reaching Communities fund was put on hold during the pandemic, but we have received some government COVID-19 funding for six months distributed through the National Lottery.

Joanne, Halliwell Befriending ServicesNS: What does the loosening of lockdown restrictions mean to your organisation and how will you approach these new challenges?

For us, it means returning to running sessions for our clients, by invite only and in small safe groups, and being able to see each other face to face.

NS: What’s the most positive moment/thing you’ve experienced during the crisis?

It was heart-warming to hear all the positive feedback from those we have been supporting. We’ve been able to see spirits lifted.

NS: What does the ‘new normal’ mean to you?

The new normal is worrying to us because there’s a chance that people will be nervous and not engage. We also worry about people’s mental and physical health. The new normal is also unpredictable and can change on a weekly, even daily, basis and it will affect any plans put into place. But we will continue to work to the best of our abilities.

The People's