By Simon Hoare – CEO of Acts Trust
This last year has created some difficult challenges yet some innovative opportunities for our teams. Kerry Werling is one of our frontline team volunteers; I caught up with her to discover how life in Lincoln has been for non-english speaking people during the pandemic.
Rewinding to February 2020, Kerry was an ESOL tutor (English for Speakers of Other Languages) for one of our Acts projects run at Alive Church in Lincoln. There are three classes for different ability levels and Kerry tutored the higher level class alongside a small team of volunteers. Kerry was also part of a group gearing up to launch a new project in Lincoln – Welcome Churches – which helps to welcome and befriend refugees to the City by providing a welcome box filled with treats and information about Lincoln. They were trying to create a new team and had a new volunteer evening planned for 23rd March, the day that the lockdown began!
As with everything else, they were forced to cancel the Welcome Churches training and postpone it – though they didn’t know how long for. The classes were also cancelled. While lockdown was in place, the team decided to regularly contact all the people in their classes individually, with each volunteer having 6 students to call each week. Primarily this was to check on their wellbeing and to see if they needed any support in any way. Alongside the phone calls, Kerry began to send out weekly emails with English articles and videos for if any of the students wanted to keep their learning going and to remind them that if they needed any help, they could get in touch.
“At the beginning I wasn’t worried about any learner in particular,” Kerry told me. “There wasn’t really anyone in mind that I was concerned about in my class because their English was pretty good. However, we did begin to worry about the beginners group as many of them really couldn’t speak English. It was hard to reach out to them.”
After a few weeks news began to filter through about individuals and families who were in desperate circumstances and really beginning to reach out for help from the volunteers – from all the classes. One family had lost all income as the father was self employed and couldn’t work during the lockdown. Others in similar circumstances were beginning to run out of money and were unable to feed their families. And one refugee family were in desperate need of help as the home office was shut and their application for asylum was severely delayed leaving them with little money for food, bills or accommodation of their own.
Kerry and the team from her class were determined to make sure these families were not forgotten or ignored, but were supported, empowered and given dignity.
Kerry was able to connect these families with Foodbank for support with food, and using their skills and efforts, the team were able to support the refugee family to make contact with social services, access financial and legal support and even find help with accommodation. They connected with organisations like British Red Cross, Upbeat Communities and the Refugee Council for support.
“Things worked out better than we could have imagined,” said Kerry. “The volunteers have been absolutely amazing with the support they’ve given – and they’ve even mentored them through their education. It has been the best scenario for them we could have imagined.”
Kerry also discovered that one family was sharing their Foodbank parcel with another family who were also struggling. The Mum was giving her share to her children, but then going hungry herself. Kerry was able to connect with this family directly so that they could access Foodbank parcels for their own household. She was also able to help get them a freezer through Lincolnshire Emergency Assistance Scheme, a DEFRA grant managed by Bishop Grosseteste University on behalf of the Lincolnshire Food Partnership. “She was so grateful, it really changed her life. She wanted to thank everyone who made this possible.”
By September, ESOL classes had resumed online for Kerry’s higher level class, and some guests were also joining our Restore Programme. Kerry also was thrilled that the Welcome Churches project was finally getting off the ground. “Training finally went ahead online in March and there is a new, vibrant and enthusiastic team ready to welcome refugees coming to Lincoln, including citizens from Hong Kong.”
“Now that we are beginning to come out of lockdown, things will begin to improve for some of our guests. The Home Office will hopefully be opening again soon for asylum cases to continue. Many of our guests can also start reopening their businesses.
“But for many, mental health is still a challenge. Being able to get out of the house and mix with others will be great. For some, the only time they practise their English is on the online calls once a week, so we are looking forward to meeting up outside at the Arboretum on a nice afternoon and people being able to chat and practise their English. It’s more than just a quick conversation; it’s a contact with the English speaking world. For those who can’t speak good English it can be isolating only being at home. They really appreciated the connection and they are looking forward to the church reopening and coming back to class!”
I asked Kerry what she would say to anyone wanting to reach out and help people at this time.
“It’s been really good to be able to help people from the house – no matter where you are there’s still things you can do. When you’re stuck at home it’s still possible to do something. We recruited and trained a team of 10 without leaving the house! Do get in touch with Acts and find out about the different projects, find one that you feel passionate about and try out volunteering! You could always do a taster session, to find out what it’s all about before you commit!”
If you’d like to join one of our teams, or donate to the work of Acts, please visit our “How You Can Help” page for more information.