As we think more about what best supports community this Loneliness Awareness Week, I’d like to throw trust into the mix.

Building healthy communities

Elsewhere, I’ve noted that the sense of true “belonging” requires us to feel valued and understood by those we share our lives with (see here).

This, in turn, means that we need real opportunities to contribute our skills to those around us and to shape the places that we live. We cannot do this without trust being invested in us.

Recent discussions about community-building have emphasised the importance of user-led initiatives, where the people that projects and services are meant to benefit can contribute meaningfully to their shape and delivery.

Bringing on board people with lived experience of the issues we are addressing, in this way, can help better meet a community’s needs. This is something ExtraCare have recently pursued in our “Engaged Lives Forum” (June 2022) where we gave opportunities for residents who had been part of community-building projects to contribute to discussions and plans about how it will move forwards.

Engaged Lives forum

Michael Spellman, Dementia and Mental Wellbeing Lead, speaking at our June 2022, “Engaged Lives Forum”

Equally importantly, user-led initiatives help people know that their views and skills are properly valued. They provide an opportunity to seed that feeling of purposeful contribution that remains central to sense of real community.

The challenge here is that proper inclusion in community-building projects requires us to invest real trust and responsibility in those we are engaging.

At ExtraCare, we recognise the importance of offering volunteering opportunities that reflect this. We want to give people opportunities to take on meaningful responsibilities, with the possibility of leadership, autonomy, and continued growth.

We have been doing this through our “Friendly Faces” initiative, which is revamping our befriending setup. We are bringing volunteers together into “Community Teams” whose members can work together to devise their own community-building ideas, and who are able to offer more empowering support to other residents in a more grassroots way.

Community team at Earlsdon Park Village

Volunteers on our "Community Team" at Earlsdon Park Village

 Through this initiative, we are seeking to invest real trust in residents, showing our belief that residents are often best placed to recognise what is needed in their community. Not all community-building needs to be done from the top.

With this approach, our Community Teams have been able to use eyes and ears on the ground to reach a greater number of people needing support in our villages and devise a wider range of community-building activities including the “Lads United” Mens’ Support Group and more regular coffee mornings, in Earlsdon Park Village. The group is now working to setup a designated “conversation table” at in the village bistro, where people who want company can find it more easily.

Coffee morning at Earlsdon Park Village

A coffee morning organised by the "Community Team" at Earlsdon Park Village

This kind of initiative can only succeed if we continue to trust those taking part. It’s all very well encouraging volunteers to play more active roles, but this requires that professionals understand how these things work and understand volunteers as people with vast professional skills and strengths that we can unleash.

This is not an easy task, as it requires professionals to carefully balance the above considerations with the need to safeguard, manage risks, and avoid over-stretching. Having evaluated our Friendly Faces initiative’s impact within two villages (see here), we are therefore offering our staff extra support in this kind of collaborative working.

We have designed a “community-building toolkit” for staff in our villages, communicating the real benefits of investing trust in volunteers and offering practical advice for doing this in an effective way. We are also giving volunteers greater support through new “volunteer handbooks” (see here), which offer complimentary advice on staying sensitive to the personal and professional pressures faced by staff, within collaborative projects. In this way, we are seeking to create a level playing field of understanding amongst all those taking part.

Stay tuned to see how we get on with this, as we roll out Friendly Faces to more villages!

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