Covid-19 Pontefract Yorkshire Support Facebook

What it takes to launch a Covid-19 community support group

Covid-19 Pontefract Yorkshire Support Food Facebook

Credit: Niala Ali

The nation reacted with panic-buying and stockpiling of goods when Covid-19 hit the shores of Britain and forced the country into lockdown.

In the midst of the confusion and choas, however, stories of courage, valour and resolve began to emerge of people putting themselves at risk to help others.

One such person is Niala Ali from the town of Pontefract in West Yorkshire, who, deciding to do more than just quietly self-isolate, launched the Covid-19 Community Support Pontefract/Leeds Facebook page.

Described as a “service for those most vulnerable, including the elderly, key workers, and families with children who are struggling”, the support group has been working “to ensure they are not left without basic necessities in this time of need”.

But what does it take to successfully establish such a vital initiative in the middle of arguably the worst crisis this nation has faced in a generation? We contacted Niala to find out.

Being a person of faith… I just needed to start it and believe it would work. And, alhamdulillah (all praise is due to Allah alone), it did!

FtLion: What were the reasons behind you establishing this incredible project?

Niala: Previously, I had regularly donated home cooked food and sandwiches to the local Homeless Kitchen in Leeds and Huddersfield.

When lockdown started, I was concerned about two groups of people mainly: the homeless, and families who rely on breakfast club and lunch meals at school for their children. Families who no doubt were going to struggle, with the hugely extended time off from school, and maybe also job losses. So I set my page up to deliver food parcels!

FtLion: Was this support initiative started entirely by yourself alone then?

Niala: It was just me! I initially self-funded it, doing it from my own home, with donations from my family members. Along with meeting requests and handling every aspect of the food parcel service alone (shopping, packing, delivering and organising/managing my page), I learned as I went along.

I then contacted local homeless kitchen services to offer my food parcel support for anyone who used their service (knowing these kitchens would be closed due to Covid-19).

Covid-19 Pontefract Yorkshire Support FacebookThrough the Castleford Homeless Kitchen; the main organiser Jenny, connected and asked me to get in touch with Neil from the Castleford Isolation Support Group. Neil invited me to the place they have been operating from (cannot disclose location because a local foodbank was broken into) to have a chat. Neil had set up the exact same service in Castleford (a neighbouring town) just days before me.

Neil has since offered me an immense amount of moral support, allowing me to shift my service from my home to their location – and just at the right time too as demand was beginning to outgrow the capacity of my space.

He also helped me get a few volunteers, which helped hugely. There are various aspects of this service such as admin, shopping and delivering to name a few. So as the demand came in thick and fast; the volunteers also came at the right time. With their help, I have been able to continue to offer food parcels without any delay. Also, one of the volunteers has made immense effort to source food donations, which is an essential part of this service.

So now, although I am still primarily overseeing and organising everything, I have a small team of people who are happy to help and support wherever possible, without whom I would not be able to continue to do what I am doing. As with all successful services, it’s always a team effort!

FtLion: Had you had any experience of doing something like this before?

Niala: The simple answer, no! I have volunteered in my own time in many ways; but, I did not have any previous experience with organising such a large scale service. It was unfamiliar territory for me. I just knew I needed two things to begin with: money and shopping.

I have a small team of people… without whom I would not be able to continue to do what I am doing. As with all successful services, it’s always a team effort!

FtLion: How has your faith played a part in setting out on this journey?

Niala: Being a person of faith, I fully believed I would learn along the way; and anything else I needed, would come. I just needed to start it and believe it would work. And, alhamdulillah (all praise is due to Allah alone), it did!

I would be lying if I said there were not moments of doubt, or I did not question if I could meet demand, or continue what I set out to achieve. I had to learn new things very quickly, such as how to build connections and source donations from big supermarkets. I also had to push myself out of my comfort zone in many ways, with fundraising being one of them.

FtLion: What do you think are the most important qualities required for such work to succeed?

Covid-19 Pontefract Yorkshire Support FacebookNiala: Persistence; motivation; patience and prayer! Alhamdulillah, it has been greater than I had imagined in terms of being able to achieve my goal. Since starting, I have been able to support so many people who did not know where help was available in such uncertain times. This support has not only been for recipients of food parcels, but their family members too, who, due to lockdown and self-isolation, were very concerned about who would support their loved ones.

Although I set out alone, it has certainly become a collective effort between myself and everyone I have come into contact with along the way in such a short amount of time – kind people who have helped in one way or the other. If they themselves have not been able to help; they have signposted me towards another positive direction where help and support has been available. Most importantly, I am grateful to those who have helped me access those most in need, especially the homeless and families with children.

FtLion: What’s been your most memorable experience thus far on this journey?

Niala: When lockdown started, I was set on helping families with children. However, it was indeed a challenge to coordinate my support for such families due to GDPR regulations. And delivering to these families meant a lot to me. I knew it would. But actually being able to deliver to these families was extremely humbling because of their immense humbleness and gratitude. They were families with children, many of them single mothers with 3-4 children, and one mother whose child was recently diagnosed with Autism. Families who were just about getting by during lockdown, and some not being able to make ends meet. They couldn’t be more grateful. These families are among those who have slipped through the system and receive very little government support, but they never ask for help, and continue in their struggle to get by. The little they have is used to buy essentials so; often their children go without luxuries. So I popped by with family food parcels, and extra filled goody bags and Easter eggs for the little ones.

Their gratitude and the joy from the kids when receiving the goody bags; truly was a reminder of what makes me continue to do what I’m doing tirelessly, hopefully until this is all over.

Their gratitude and the joy from the kids when receiving the goody bags; truly was a reminder of what makes me continue to do what I’m doing tirelessly, hopefully until this is all over.

FtLion: What are you short- and long-term plans, especially now that you’ve gained such experience, and particularly after this lockdown is over?

Niala: I haven’t really had the opportunity to think about my long-term and short-term plans with regards to where I will go with the service I have set up. It for sure has been an incredible learning experience in such a short amount of time, and I am still learning. It has taught me invaluable skills, and given me confidence in areas I otherwise found intimidating such as advertising and fundraising.

After lockdown, I like most people will be returning to my commitments of ‘normal life’, which undoubtedly means, I will not have as much time to commit to what I have started, which has kept me busier than a full time job.

I am hoping to continue in my work, adapting it to current needs, such as redirecting my resources and help to local Homeless Kitchens in the first instance, and taking it from there. At the bare minimum, I truly hope to continue to build on my experience, grow, and incorporate this type of voluntary giving back to those most in need; into my normal life, with greater consistence and commitment.

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