Meet the RVA team: Rhiannon Stocking-Williams, Ready Friends Coordinator

For the third profile in our meet the team series, we speak to Rhiannon Stocking-Williams, who coordinates RVA’s Ready Friends project. Rhiannon’s role is about increasing the number of people who are active in communities around Reading by making sure that people know how they can get involved in social groups, community events, sports, volunteering and democracy. Here she reflects on the impressive adaptability of local charities and community groups, the renewed national conversation about tackling loneliness and social isolation, and holding on to the ‘permission of snow’ community spirit…

How has your role changed since the coronavirus outbreak?

Part of my role changed quite quickly, for a while, as RVA became one of the One Reading Community Hub partners. I joined a few RVA colleagues in a small team making quick connections between people needing help and the incredible local  voluntary and community sector (VCS) groups and organisations able to support them. It was an intensive and dynamic period while we responded to the initial surge of people who had contacted the Hub.

With Ready Friends specifically, my work has centred on how to support existing befriending services to transition from face-to-face to distance befriending (mostly over the telephone), and to encourage other VCS groups to set up distance befriending from scratch. I created a training package of resources that would suit VCOs delivering existing befriending schemes as well as those with no previous experience looking for more punchy, pop-up training videos to share with their volunteers. Credit here must be given to the sterling and prompt response from the national Befriending Networks, who dropped their paywall to offer lots of resources, including new ones, to all VCOs. It was also great to contribute in a small way to the excellent guidance that Herjeet has been producing for groups on supporting volunteers and safeguarding. I have also been sending out Ready Friends News more regularly, to ensure that groups hear about new resources and funding opportunities promptly.

Since I started doing development work in the early 90s, the internet, and especially email, has moved much this of this work online and the outbreak has extended how we operate in this sphere. Meetings that were due to be held in physical venues, such as the Befriending Forum in the Community Place, are happening via Zoom and other online video platforms.

What has been the most challenging part of the changes over the last few weeks?

I’m a very social creature and not being in the office with my lovely colleagues has been tougher than I’d have predicted, alongside not being with family and friends. I’ve enjoyed the regular Zoom team meetings and one-to-ones with colleagues, but it’s definitely not the same – and you miss out on that informal and spontaneous creative cross-fertilisation of ideas that arise from the general office chat.

Another challenge has been encouraging the new pop-up groups supporting people with shopping and befriending, often operating at street level, to put in place simple measures that will safeguard the people they are helping, their volunteers, and themselves as organisers. It’s a fine balance between keeping it simple and feeling like you’re wrapping people in red tape and discouraging neighbourliness.

Dealing with the emotional fallout of witnessing inequality and the appalling impact on those least able to support themselves and their families has been difficult. By the same token, there have been profoundly moving stories of resilience and kindness – often at a hyperlocal level here in Reading.

On a personal note, I have really missed travelling and getting out with my camera. So far, I’ve had to forgo a trip to Edinburgh and my first visit to Romania. I’m guessing they’ll both still be there when this is all over, though.

Have there been any positives to lockdown for you?

I have been astounded at just how nimble RVA and other Reading VCOs have been in transitioning within this new environment. One of the draws for me of working in a small VCS organisation has always been the flexibility it gives you to adapt and act quickly when needed, without having to wait months – and sometimes longer – for new initiatives to be passed through endless committee processes before getting the green (or worse, red!) light.

In the few months prior to the crisis, the national conversation around loneliness and social isolation had begun to get quieter and it seemed it was destined to fall further down the government’s agenda. Lockdown has thrown it right back into the spotlight, demonstrating clearly how everyone is vulnerable to experiencing loneliness, especially resulting from a negative change in their daily life. New (and existing) funding programmes are once again prioritising it – and innovative approaches as well as tried-and-tested successful services will be saved and develop, to help local people recover from the detrimental impact of confinement, disconnection and social-distancing.

I have made new connections with colleagues in VCS groups around the town that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, which has deepened my understanding of what they do – and what more they could do, given the right support and funding. I have an even deeper sense of pride in being part of Reading’s utterly amazing VCS at the most challenging time I’ve ever known for the people in my town. I have been involved in national webinars, after which I’ve had follow-up meetings with colleagues from all sectors across the UK, to discuss their alternative approaches to the crisis.

Things I haven’t missed: the lack of aircon on the top floor of the library during the hot weather!

As we start to look to a future shaped by coronavirus, are there things you are particularly concerned about or hopeful for?

The critical part that the voluntary and community sector plays in our national and local life is now evident at a policy level, but also at an unprecedented personal level for many people, who had never needed or experienced it before.

I am an optimist and I think that, within every crisis, there are opportunities for positive social change, some of which we can guess at (and try to nurture) now and others that are beyond our wild imaginings. The trick is to be open to and ready for them.

Successive governments have always talked up the VCS and yet the follow-through in terms of respect, policy and funding has often been meagre at best. The critical part that the VCS plays in our national and local life is now evident at a policy level, but also at an unprecedented personal level for many people, who had never needed or experienced it before. My hope is that this cannot be ‘unseen’ anymore, and that the VCS gains a new standing in public life and policy. The very same is also true of the role and impact of frontline carers in all sectors.

The outpouring of kindness and generosity of spirit similar to what has been termed ‘the permission of snow’ has been profoundly moving and hopeful. When snow falls in the UK (especially places it rarely falls and settles) people spontaneously check on their neighbours to see if they need anything or will help dig a stranger’s car out of the snow. However, once the snow melts, so does that community spirit, more often than not. Thousands of people in Reading rallied to the call for RVA Coronavirus Response Volunteers and the NHS Volunteer Responders, many of whom would not have considered volunteering ever before. We all need to do what we can to keep that energy and kindness alive into the medium and long-term future.