Throughout the COVID-19 health pandemic, there have been many examples of our communities responding to the exceptional circumstances to help those in need. Here, Home-Start Omagh District shares its story.

The objective of Home-Start Omagh District is to offer practical and emotional home-visiting volunteer support to families with young children living in the Omagh District area. The outbreak of COVID-19 meant that our very reason for being (ie. home-visiting support by trained volunteers) had to be suspended. We could not put families or volunteers at risk and yet we knew that there were local families who still needed support and volunteers who still wanted to help.

All of our volunteers have stayed in contact with the families that they have been matched with through phone and text. They have also found new ways of communicating with these families through Whats App, Facetime and Zoom to offer emotional support to parents, and with some volunteers reading stories and nursery rhymes with children.  Our volunteers have also reached out to families that they supported in the past to check on how they were managing the lockdown and so old connections and friendships have been renewed.  We have even matched some new families up with volunteers they have never met face to face before.

Meanwhile, we knew that families still needed some form of practical support and quite organically a new way of supporting those families has evolved.  Having applied for a grant through the Neighbourly website, we were asked by Neighbourly if we would be willing to take surplus food from our local Marks and Spencer’s store.  This is food that has reached its use by date and would most likely be dumped. And so for the last 6 weeks, myself and 2 volunteers have been collecting food from our local M&S store after it closing and distributing it to families in the Omagh area that evening. We have been doing this 6 nights a week for the last 6 weeks!

We have also been working with the food bank established in the MACCA Resource Centre to distribute non-perishable food and cupboard staples, household cleaning and personal hygiene items to families.

The families that we bring out these food boxes to are not only families that we currently support but also families that we have supported in the past. We have also brought food out to families that we have never supported before and who a volunteer has referred to us.  The families have been very happy to see another adult and we usually have a good socially-distanced chat with the parent about how their day has gone etc.

Sometimes we have been overwhelmed with the food that we get from Marks and Spencers and there is maybe too much to give to the families on our list for drop offs that evening so we have regularly dropped off food items at Omagh Women’s Aid. We have also reached out to another 2 community groups and hopefully will be bringing surplus food to these groups as well.

We have also purchased items like nappies, baby wipes and baby formula for families that are struggling, and have passed on donations of baby/children’s clothes to families that could not either get hold of clothes for their children during lockdown or cannot afford to purchase clothes online.

All in all, it has been a new way of working for us and while it has been challenging, it has meant a new way of connecting with not only families in the Omagh District area but also with other community groups and businesses. We have also found a new way of connecting with our volunteers. we have a Whats app group for our home-visiting volunteers and one for our trustees who manage our charity. And today, in recognition of Volunteers’ week, we had our first Zoom call with some of our volunteers, which was good fun! We are planning a socially distanced meet up/walk in July or August (depending on government guidelines).

I don’t know how long we will be able to sustain the food distribution aspect of our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic but we are already planning ways that we can continue to offer families practical help over the summer months.

*Fermanagh and Omagh District Council was pleased to provide Home-Start Omagh with £150 of funding support.