Chris Smith interview

Rosie Knighton interviews the founder of the Great Shelford COVID-19 support group, Chris Smith.

After 500 days of the Great Shelford COVID support group, it has been announced that the group has now shut down on July 31. Chris Smith, the founder of the group, spoke to Rosie Knighton about his role and how the group has progressed from a small facebook post crafted in his home one Thursday evening in 2020.

What do you do as your day job and how long have you been living in Shelford for?

Charlotte and I have lived in Shelford since 2013 and are very happy here! In terms of my job, I have been working at the chemicals company Johnson Matthey, based in Royston, since 2010. I started as an industrial chemist and have recently moved into a supply chain role within a new business unit, which will make battery materials for cars and other uses.

What inspired you to start the group and have you done anything like this before?

I certainly haven’t done anything really like it at all, certainly not on this scale! It came out of a desire to help. It started one Thursday night, we weren’t in lockdown yet, but I just had this desire; I really wanted to help but I didn’t know how to. We attend the local Church, my son is in primary school here, we’ve lived here for a few years so we’ve got to know a few other people, and I thought maybe if there’s people isolating either through desire or necessity we could maybe pull on those networks and try and help each other out. I put this facebook post together and in the end it got about a hundred likes. It started from there really.

How would you say that the group evolved from there?

Once we had loads of people commenting and other people started saying they’d be very happy to help as well, we began thinking how do we put some sort of framework around this. I was very pleased to be contacted by one woman named Mary Regnier-Wilson who I treat as the co-founder, who had much better knowledge about the geographical make-up of the village. From that we had a vision to get enough support so that every street in the village could be adopted by at least one volunteer. A couple of weeks later we were successful in doing that, and really that’s down to the people in the village deciding to get involved. It made sure that everyone in the village had what we called a key contact.

That was the first of a few steps in setting up the group. The second was to transition away from Facebook communication. Thirdly, knowing that we had the best part of 80 volunteers, I knew that that was too many for me to be looking after each one. So again with Mary’s help we split the village up into six areas. From the volunteers I asked people if they were willing to become a leader of one of these areas, to be called a region coordinator, with a purpose to act as a first point of contact for each volunteer. Finally we wrote a set of guidelines for all volunteers to follow. But the structure was designed to be light and not detract from the volunteering. In a sense what I did feels like a very small effort, what everyone else did feels much greater!

What, in your opinion, was your biggest success in running and being part of the group?

At the peak of our volunteering we were helping about 200 people in the group, but we also did other things. One was the laptops for schools; Mike Nettleton did the lion share of work on that! In all there were about 150 laptops donated and over 20 of those went to schools. It actually functioned more as a recycling service but that’s still good in this day and age! My wife’s a teacher so I’ve seen first hand the difficulty people have had in that sector and I know each one of those laptops will have made a massive difference to people. The other success was delivering about 80 Christmas meals to residents who otherwise wouldn’t have had a Christmas dinner.

In terms of the core volunteering, we’ve gathered lots of stories. I myself actually benefited from getting some yeast which was in such short supply! In the wider group we had volunteers starting flat car batteries of residents, organizing socially distanced parties, picking berries and I can’t count the number of prescriptions we collected. It’s those kind of impractical things that people aren’t usually comfortable with asking for help! This gave people the opportunity not only to give but to receive help.

Do you have a favourite anecdote from the whole experience?

My favourite example and this is one that I managed to do personally, is I came across somebody who didn’t have any food in their house and didn’t have any money. They were literally ‘at the end’. Through the knowledge I’d gained, I was able to organise emergency food parcels from the council but also get them into the system with the John Huntingdon charity and the foodbank which can then provide more regular help and support. When you help a single person or family, you actually realise that the giver gets just as much of a hit as the receiver does.

It touches on one of the challenges as well. Often we think it’s a challenge to give in this world as everyone is so busy, but actually it’s sometimes quite hard to receive as well. So we discovered both a joy in giving and in receiving. And that connection is something people can hang on to. Like you I’m absolutely blown away by the positive community attitude that’s come from this, and it reminds me of my favourite quote from one of the volunteers at this time, “getting a smile and a wave from my neighbours, makes my day”. It’s those everyday little connections that we need to foster; we need contact with other people and community.

How did you find it personally, trying to fit everything in running the group?

Don’t get me wrong, working full time, trying to home-school, my wife also working, whilst also taking on this new Covid support group was a little bit crazy, but it’s amazing how the more you do the more you can fit in - now I feel like I’m starting to take a bit of a breath out and need a bit of a holiday! It’s definitely been challenging getting the time, but having those regional coordinators has definitely helped that burden. Because the group was formed so quickly out of necessity, I often sometimes wonder whether there were some people who fell through the gaps. But we did our best - as my work colleague says, “best efforts and all”!

After helping many people, the group is scheduled to officially stop at the end of July. How was this decision reached and how do you feel about it in the current climate of rising cases?

In terms of our level of support it was really high at about 200 people last year in May, since then our level of support has gradually been declining. I actually count that as a really good thing, as that means that people can access the support that they need. Looking back to January 2021 when cases were really high, our level of support was actually really low and has continued to be so ever since. I think given that restrictions are easing now and, given we have the vaccine roll out and the easing of restrictions, I wanted to give a measure of certainty to the volunteers. When the volunteers signed up, no one knew we’d get to 500 days. As well as their goodwill to the village I think it’s really important for them to know that their goodwill is not going to be an indefinite gesture that never ends.

After lots of conversations, there wasn’t enough demand for a permanent group to evolve. What we can do is look to all the different support groups that Shelford already has. So I’ve produced a volunteer guide which will act as a signpost in case volunteers are asked for help after the group has closed. It feels like the right time to end the group and we’re making sure anyone still accessing our help is moved to a more sustainable support. It’s been great for this time but let’s not be afraid to bring it to a purposeful end.

If other lockdowns come around in the future the village will need to look at that and see. But because of all the new connections a lot of people are going to continue to look out for people on their own informal and impersonal basis. That’s fine and that’s great - that’s what we should be doing as villagers!