Neighbouring communities pool resources to help during a year of the COVID-19 pandemic

Two rural groups emerged from the Covid-19 crisis, pooling resources to help those in need during the worst pandemic in generations.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 12:24 pm

Friends of the Birches and Maghery Matters (comprising Maghery Community Covid Response) rose to the challenge when it was clear lockdown was badly affecting the older and more vulnerable.

Leigh Silcock of Friends of the Birches recalls how the group started. “I was lying in bed worrying about the COVID-19 thing and impending lockdowns and all I could think was that the only groups that I knew of around here were for old people or children. I was acutely aware that the older people would be of higher risk and that they needed help.

“I spoke to a good friend Yvonne Woods about the possibility of doing something to help and she said ‘go for it’ and that she would help in any way she could. In bed that night we set up Friends of the Birches Facebook page (accidentally stealing the name of the Birches PS’s PTA - I knew it was too good to have been my idea).

The Birches, near Portadown. Photo courtesy of Google.

Leigh revealed: “Floods of messages started coming in from local businesses about helping and local people offering to lend a hand in whatever way they could.

“Flyers were donated and they included my contact number and a bit about what we were trying to offer/do. We put a shout out on the group to get these delivered to all the houses in the area (not quite realising the scale of it at this time). People came forward straight away offering to hand these out on their own road during their daily exercise. We think upwards of 1,500 flyers were sent out initially and we received tons of messages and calls of thanks from people who had received them.

“Next came an excellent partnership with Maghery Matters who were a really similar group who shared the load for a second flyer drop around the country.

“My mum used to design and make wedding dresses and was really keen to lend a hand so we set up a group of really talented local ladies who took in to sewing scrubs, little carry bags and masks. I have no idea how many were produced. I really regret not keeping track of things like that.”

Community Hall, Maghery, Co Armagh. Photo courtesy of Google.

Since they were set up the Friends of the Birches group took part in drive by birthdays for local people, weekly delivery of meals to the Cosy Club, a local club for older people, weekly deliveries to local people who were older, living alone or shielding plus delivering bags of food provided by local businesses.

The group also helped out chemists to deliver prescriptions to people in town and further afield.

Their popular Facebook page was also used to help advertise goods and services for local businesses to try to help them out in difficult times.

Leigh added: “We also offered a telephone service where we took people’s numbers to enable us to keep in touch with them.”

The group sourced and provided craft supplies to local crafters, they collected and delivered groceries and took part in litter lifting in the area.

Leigh said the group wanted to give a special shout out to the local kids (young adults) who helped deliver dinners almost every week - Mia Proctor and Matthew Willis.

She said: “Also praise for local councillors Julie Flaherty and Eamon McNeill and his wife Rosemary. They really went above and beyond the call of duty.”

In Maghery, the Facebook page Maghery Matters was set up and the group Maghery Community Covid Response.

Noleen Laverty, chairperson of the group, said that while 2020 will long be remembered as a ‘horrible year’ there is no doubt that ‘we should all be so proud of how, in the darkest of times, our community pulled together to look after each other’.

Noleen revealed that from the beginning they worked with Leigh Silcock from Friends of the Birches and began to gather names and numbers of volunteers in Maghery willing to help.

She said: “The Head of the Road restaurant donated up the first batch of dinners for senior citizens and this made us think about the amount of people who were in a vulnerable position in our community. A list was drawn up of people living alone, couples isolating and older people living with a carer.

“There were over 100 households on our list. Funding was received with help from Mary McAlinden in the South Lough Neagh Regeneration Association and this was used to start circulating weekly Sunday dinners to people living alone, prepared by Ellie Mos and delivered by our local volunteers. Dinners were also funded by Maghery GAC, The Diamond Group and private donors.

“Food parcels were distributed every week, containing food donated by local businesses through Alan McDowell and the team at Portadown Wellness Centre. Cllr Eamon McNeil and his wife Rosemary worked tirelessly to ensure these were brought out to the local community hall (a vital resource) for our volunteers to deliver. A special thanks to all on the hall committee. On one occasion, NHS staff in the area also received a food hamper as a thank you for their work.

“Maghery GAC received funding and distributed vouchers to vulnerable people to use in Wrights Filling Station. Indeed the football club were instrumental in the response, Chairperson Niall Forker, Vice-Chairperson Paul Slater and the senior footballers who were in our volunteer group in particular,” said Noleen.

“The Wright family from Wright’s Filling Station were also fantastic throughout, taking orders via phone and email for people isolating/cocooning and providing a delivery and collection service.

“Shane Donnelly from Greenisland flowers donated bunches of flowers which were distributed to senior citizens along with vouchers,” she added.

“Maghery senior footballers raised money and paid for pizza from Tony & Herbs to be delivered by our volunteers, including local Cllr Eoin Tennyson, to all the local youth footballers and pupils of St Mary’s PS and principal Miss Rita Robinson and Loughshore Playgroup.

“The school also donated drinks and sweets for the children. It was a joy to see their smiling faces in photos they sent us.

“Although it was a very strange and trying year, it was a credit to the local community to see all the organisations within Maghery work together as one to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community were looked after.

“Through the community response, we tried to reach as many households in the area as possible in order to reassure them that they would not be forgotten about in a time of great concern for many. The joint effort of local groups, businesses, our two local councillors and volunteers was testament to what can be achieved when we all work together.

“We hope that these joint efforts will continue in the future for the benefit of our community. The aim of the Maghery Matters Regeneration Group is to create, enhance and highlight the facilities and services available in the area. This will hopefully improve the overall quality of life for people living in the Maghery area and also encourage new people to move into the area.

“A massive word of thanks to each and every person, group and business that helped in any way during our community Covid response.”

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