“Helping each other is a quality we all possess and should not stop doing, not just in this hard time, but always”

Going for Gold Public Engagement Coordinator Florence Pardoe reports on how the citizens of Bristol are coming together to support each other in response to the pandemic.  

A year ago, a study emerged that named Bristol as the kindest city in the UK. Having lived here for 12 years, my suspicions were confirmed and I fell in love with the city and its people a little more. An astonishing 68% of people in Bristol volunteer, compared to 25% nationally. That’s why it comes as no surprise that when the going got tough, the people of Bristol really got going.  

The response of citizens in our fair city has been one of the most positive things to emerge from this crisis. From small local action, to coordinated responses across the city, the people of Bristol are making sure no one goes unfed. 

Whilst established organisations like FareShare, Caring In Bristol, numerous community kitchens and others have been working sensationally hard, along with Bristol’s amazing hospitality industry, it’s the response of individual citizens that I’d like to talk about.  

“I am blown away with the spirit and generosity of human beings and of the people… who are supporting the vulnerable. I am receiving help from Steve, who is helping me in his own time and I am truly humbled by this. I am certain without any doubt in my mind that helping each other is a quality we all possess and should not stop doing, not just in this hard time, but always” said an individual supported by a member of ACORN’s volunteering team. 

ACORN have been instrumental in recruiting volunteers to respond to people’s needs. ACORN are a Community Union, who work on behalf of members to campaign on issues that are important to them; they were in the midst of a campaign to bring Bristol buses under public control when the outbreak began.

With roots in communities across the city, organisational structures and democratic decision-making procedures already in place they were in a strong position to mobilise and respond swiftly and efficiently, and they certainly have. They now have over 1000 volunteers registered and responding to the hundreds of requests for help they are receiving every few days; help with shopping, post, prescriptions, bills advice and check-in phone calls. They are working with the Mutual Aid groups that have self-organised through Facebook in almost every postcode in the city, recruiting volunteers, providing flyers and guidelines and systematically mapping the city to make sure no area gets left behind.

It quickly became apparent that the most thorough coverage was coming from the more socially mobile and affluent communities, and they have made a concerted effort to reach out to those with less social capital, flyering every council tower block in Barton Hill, St Pauls and Easton. Requests for help from these areas are now coming thick and fast. Yet the response time on the volunteer spreadsheet is something to behold, with most requests being picked up in less than 12 hours.  

One volunteer I spoke to who is regularly helping a number of people living in his area – who he had never met before – hopes he will maintain friendships and perhaps even put faces to voices over a pint at the local in the future.

Aidan, the Community Organiser for ACORN Bristol, tells me that he regularly gets calls from people who have received a flyer just to check that there is someone on the end of the phone. After spending hours on hold to various helplines and government initiatives, the psychological benefit for the most isolated to have someone pick up the phone, to know there is someone there who cares and is ready to help, is extremely powerful. Human connection in times of such separation is vital. One individual who has been supported said:

“Thank you so much to Tom and Leo. You guys are awesome looking after me. And putting me completely at ease and listening too. Very, very kind, compassionate people. Cannot thank this organsiation enough. I’m so, so grateful. This link is vital for all those who are isolated”.

Though the official offering from ACORN volunteers is shopping with the understanding of reimbursement, many of those who can are refusing re-payment, and ACORN are currently exploring relationships with a number of organsiations to offer free food delivery, such as the National Food Service, CoExist Community Kitchen and The Plough.  

Humanitarian Bristol are another organisation formed by concerned citizens compelled to take action to help those in need. Seeking advice from their network of contacts in social work, the NHS and the police, they formed an emergency response, providing free food parcels to those who meet their criteria for help, with a particular focus on getting fresh, healthy food to cancer patients.  

What makes this volunteer movement different to those which have gone before is that we now find ourselves unified as one community, responding to the most acute crisis we have yet to experience in our lifetimes. The response is coming from and branching into every community of Bristol, breaking down barriers between ethnicities and generations.  

Anira, the organiser of Humanitarian Bristol, hopes the legacy of this crisis will be how the kindness of strangers challenged our sense of identity, allowed people to put aside stigmas and judgement and created a new humanitarian memory. 

Throughout history food has brought people together, but even in a city as friendly as Bristol, it doesn’t always manage to traverse the cultural boundaries. Perhaps now, in times of extreme separation, the compassion of our citizens will lead to a more unified Bristol. 

Florence Pardoe is the founder of Bristol-based start-up grOWN IT and the Public Engagement Coordinator for Bristol Going for Gold. Read more about the aims of grOWN IT’s science and food education workshops here.