No words can overstate the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on our communities. It has altered everyone’s way of life, tested our resolve and had tragic consequences for many.
But in this adversity it has also shown the willingness of the British people to pull together and help those most in need too.
Hundreds of thousands of people, across the country, have helped to deliver groceries, pick up prescriptions and check in on neighbours. They have organised local mutual aid groups, helped through existing volunteering networks and offered their time in a host of different ways.
Volunteers have always made an important contribution to the health and vitality of our communities.
From the 70,000 “Games Makers” at London 2012, to the hundreds of stewards who help out in independent museums and National Trust properties, to the dedicated parents who referee Sunday league football matches. These people who generously offer their time and talents are at the very heart of our civil society.
This week is Volunteers’ Week, an annual celebration of the contribution millions of people make, and it could not carry more meaning than it does this year.
In these challenging times, charities and social enterprises’ staff and volunteers have stepped up their response. They have been fundamental in the national effort to fight coronavirus so it is right that we not only celebrate them but thank them too.
Individual volunteers and the groups they work with demonstrate the very best of us – our diversity, generosity and ability to innovate when required.
They include the Cymer Afan community library in West Glamorgan, which staff and volunteers transformed into a temporary food bank, after the local service closed because its volunteers were self-isolating. Another award-winner is Eglinton community centre in County Londonderry, where volunteers have been running online dance exercise classes, so older people who usually attend in person can stay active from the comfort of their living rooms.
Elisabeth and David Carney-Haworth, Plymouth-based founders of Silver Stories and winners of Points of Light, the prime minister’s award recognising outstanding volunteers, are tackling loneliness by bringing together the older and younger generations through the power of storytelling. And I was particularly inspired to hear about 100-year-old Dabirul Choudhury, from London, who walked an impressive 100 laps of his communal garden while fasting for Ramadan, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for Ramadan Family Commitment.
Voluntary groups from across the UK will receive the highest award given to organisations delivering exceptional service within their communities. All of the 230 winners have demonstrated a long-term commitment to volunteering, with many of them adapting their services in light of the pandemic.
But in government we’re also aware that there are major challenges for charities and voluntary organisations at this time, as fundraising has become more difficult while demand for some services rises.
British people and businesses have been incredibly generous: their contributions total over £800m through national fundraising campaigns alone. We’re determined to match that generosity which is why we’re pledging a multibillion-pound boost to bridge the gap and make sure help reaches those who need it most.
This includes a dedicated £200m support scheme, distributed through the National Lottery Community Fund, which is now open for applications from small and medium-sized charities. Through the £750m charity support package announced by the chancellor, we are also giving hundreds of millions of pounds to charities doing vital work to support domestic abuse victims, to organise food bank donations, and have unlocked £150m of dormant accounts to help those who are financially vulnerable.
As we start to regain some normality over the weeks and months ahead, we must continue to look out for each other. I am proud to have worked in the sector for many years as founder and chief executive of domestic abuse charity Safelives and as a trustee of other charities. I have learned so much from volunteering. I know that many of you reading this will also be actively volunteering and will understand exactly how important it is.
It is clear to me that volunteering is a two-way street – those that give their time and those that receive support both reap the benefits in equal measure. It’s a brilliant way to meet people you may not otherwise have the chance to get to know, and for young and old to gain experience and build skills that will help them personally.
In the coming weeks the organisations we celebrate today will continue to be a lifeline in our communities, whatever challenges the future may hold.
I know the amazing spirit of goodwill we’ve seen since the pandemic struck will help us emerge stronger from this crisis.
• Lady Barran is the minister for civil society