Meet the RVA Team: Sarah Timmins DeGregory, Development Officer

Sarah Timmins DeGregory joined the RVA Team at the start of 2016 as a Development Officer. Sarah works in the community, listening to community leaders, families and young people, identifying gaps in service provision, and linking people to opportunities in the voluntary sector that will improve their daily lives and strengthen community cohesion. In our fourth ‘Meet the RVA Team’ profile, Sarah reflects on the resilience and collaborative work of community groups in Reading, helping families through lockdown, the stark contrasts which the coronavirus crisis has brought to the fore, and the unique opportunity we now have to look critically at our systems and practices and shape the future we want.
Tell us about your role(s) at RVA…
Initially, I worked in North Reading on a community planning process with a resident association, developing their role in their neighbourhood and at their refurbished community centre. Thereafter, I moved to South Reading hosting informal parent groups and listening sessions, hearing concerns and linking families and schools to sector resources, such as workshops, referrals, and funding. This role has expanded to include RVA’s work with the One Reading partnership alongside Brighter Futures for Children. Here we refer schools to sector services that support specific needs of students and families.
How has your role changed since the coronavirus outbreak?

Immediately before lockdown, I met families at schools, in neighbourhood cafés or by telephone and we spoke about support they would need in preparation (food, clothing, technology) for closing of schools and other daily services. Luckily, RVA partner organisations such as Readifood, First Days and The Cowshed were quick to fulfill referrals which was a relief, as I anticipated not having direct community contact for a while. After an initial settling period, families and schools were able to connect via text and phone, while the One Reading partnership began to convene its meetings with schools and partners on a secure online platform. Meanwhile several of our charity partners were able to pivot their services to online and/or telephone support which has been critical in buoying families during this time.

Quickly following lockdown, RVA aided in the coordination and support of the One Reading Community Hub. Here I worked with a team of colleagues, contacting residents in Reading who called into the Hub, and further linked them to support such as food parcels, mental health and wellbeing resources or guidance on benefits. In addition, I have been coordinating with community food partners, the voluntary sector and the local authority on how to redistribute food that would have been left in offices, hotels, school buildings, restaurants, etc. due to mandatory closures and otherwise gone to waste.

This piece of work has been fast-paced and tremendously inspiring as I have witnessed resilient community groups adjust their daily operations, network with each other and local, regional and national organisations, grow in capacity and serve the most vulnerable of their communities…

I also connected groups to generous donations from local mosques and other service organisations such as Reading Lions. This piece of work has been fast-paced and tremendously inspiring as I have witnessed resilient community groups adjust their daily operations, network with each other and local, regional and national organisations, grow in capacity and serve the most vulnerable of their communities via food parcel and hot meal deliveries, along with other basic needs and assisted signposting. As we enter post-lockdown these community groups will be critical in assisting residents in transition during the uncertain months to come, and we need to look toward supporting these community groups further.

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

Working in communities across Reading, I’m often on the road or in different settings. I’m happy to sit myself in a corner with a laptop to get work done, so the instant reliance on home working isn’t a massive adjustment. I find the increased use of different online platforms somewhat dizzying, and not having access to office supplies and equipment forces me to creatively master other online tools, but I have adjusted. I do miss seeing our RVA team in-person with our spontaneous exchanges, film and restaurant reviews and camaraderie that comes with office life.

Looking outward at the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in Reading, when you do not have access to your community, those gaps become stark and immediate – whether it is school meals or over 50s lunch clubs, after-school gatherings at the play park, access to computers or toddler sessions at the local library, travelling on the bus into the town centre, weekly chats with your local barber or stylist, etc. The national and local response to certain aspects of daily life has been tremendous while others fall short, and I applaud RVA for looking critically at ways to address these needs from food shopping support to transport to befriending to digital inclusion and beyond.

As a parent of a school-age child, I would say unequivocally the biggest challenge of the past months has been home schooling. Happy to report that we have grown a few tomato plants without any prior experience. Let’s call that a science lesson success!

Have there been any positives to lockdown for you?
I’m heartened by the response of local people, groups that work quietly in their corners of Reading, groups coming together to respond in synergy to help people they may never meet, without recognition or thanks. It gives me hope for humanity, and we need that right now.
Oftentimes in life and in work, I remember an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that reads ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.’ I am impressed daily by the reaction and resource of community groups, led by women (and men!). No one elected to be in this situation, and we are experiencing lockdown in real time as individuals, concerned for family and friends here and abroad, as professionals here, across the country and around the globe. I’m heartened by the response of local people, groups that work quietly in their corners of Reading, groups coming together to respond in synergy to help people they may never meet, without recognition or thanks. It gives me hope for humanity, and we need that right now.
As we start to look to a future shaped by coronavirus, are there things you are particularly concerned about or hopeful for?

I’m optimistic for the continued collaboration of community groups in Reading. There have been fruitful partnerships that I’m keen to see grow and thrive. I’d like to think that the importance of these community hubs will be recognised and supported by local people, and increase in support from youngest to oldest residents, be it in the form of participation in programmes, local leadership via volunteerism, or other civic roles.

However, I’m concerned about the stark gaps in society that lockdown, Covid and subsequent social justice marches around the globe have brought to the forefront. At every level of our sector and all sectors, we must work to address equity, distribution of resources (be it access to technology, language, food, housing, etc.), implicit biases that sway our efforts.

We must continue looking critically at ourselves, our practices and systems that hinder progress for all. We must continue to listen and learn from those with first-hand experiences, experiences that do not mirror our own but hold validity and use our privilege to support others to grow and thrive. We have a unique opportunity at this moment to see the world and the future how we want it to be, not how it was before. I’m cautiously optimistic we will not waste it.