Two community champions have been recognised and honoured by The National Lottery and Repair Shop host Jay Blades for their efforts during the coronavirus pandemic for supporting the visually impaired in their community.
Michelle Thomson and Sarah-Jane Piper, who have set up a charity called Blind and Sight Impaired Society, assisted people who found themselves in crisis at the start of the lockdown, creating a befriending service that became the only lifeline for visually-impaired people in South Essex.
Michelle and Sarah-Jane spoke to more than 150 visually-impaired people through weekly telephone befriending, which was a crucial way of discovering those in crisis, needing urgent help.
They then personally dealt with issues, including arranging supermarket delivery slots, doorstep deliveries of food parcels, collection of prescriptions, social care interventions, calling ambulances, arranging repairs, offering emotional support and signposting to other local agencies.
Their fundraising and campaigning efforts have earnt them a lasting tribute in the local community, in the form of a bespoke bench, distinctively designed by BBC Repair Shop's Jay.
The bench installed at Gloucester Park in Basildon, Essex, features built-in dog bowls for guide dogs or any other canine companions and is emblazoned with the poignant quote ‘seeing is not the only way to have vision’.
The charity workers are among 12 ‘Unsung Champions’ across the UK being recognised for their time and efforts in supporting some of the most vulnerable in communities during the pandemic.
All the benches include a QR code that will allow visitors to listen to an audio recording of Jay regaling the individuals’ stories and boast written dedications in braille.
“At the beginning, when lockdown first kicked in, it was a really challenging period,” said general manager Michelle, 43, who lives in Basildon with husband, Steve, and children Joseph, 18, and Ben, 15.
“Lots of the visually-impaired people were struggling with basic things like accessing shopping and medicine, because they’re not able to socially distance due to their sight loss. Not to mention that a lot of them are older people who are shielding.
“In the beginning we were having to identify people in crisis and get around to literally put things in place so that they could have food and people checking in on them. That was difficult, and we’re a small team and so it was a challenge to reach all those people.
“We are proud of what we’ve achieved. The toughest moment of lockdown was at the beginning, just not knowing how serious it was going to be and how it was going to impact the blind people in our community.
“We had to decide how many staff were able to carry on working, how we could best support those people, adapt our services and find out how to do that. It’s not something we’ve ever had to consider before.”
Jay Blades has designed benches to be installed across the UK, dedicated to National Lottery supported community heroes
In some communities the actions of a few have made life bearable for many and Sarah-Jane and Michelle are just one example of the thousands of people and projects across the UK who have received National Lottery funding in order to support communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
National Lottery players contribute £30 million a week to good causes around the country, many of which are supporting the most vulnerable in communities across the UK during the coronavirus crisis.
During lockdown so many people desperately missed the social groups that usually take place at BASIS and so Michelle and Sarah-Jane developed ways for them to maintain contact, including a keep-fit class conducted via Zoom.
They also helped some of the elderly clients to learn to access the technology and safely take part.
“We’ve been receiving National Lottery funding for the last three years and without it, we wouldn’t have been able to support the hundreds of visually-impaired people,” said Michelle, speaking as The National Lottery revealed that almost half of people (49%) feel that, notwithstanding the hardships of the pandemic, one of the positives to emerge is the sense of community spirit, and 58% have an increased appreciation for community workers.
“It’s also helped us to develop as an organisation through training, and capacity building – which has obviously strengthened us for the future.
“By people buying their National Lottery tickets they’ve helped us keep supporting people through this crisis, and so it has been amazing!
“It’s integral because we’re a small charity, although we do our best to fundraise and remain sustainable off our own backs.”
This increased appreciation for people who help others in their community has led to a greater desire from the public to honour them. So much so, that eight times as many people would rather buy a drink for a local charity worker than an A-list celebrity.
Jay said: “Like most of us, I have witnessed inspirational acts of selflessness and kindness this year as people have adapted their lives to help others. It has been an honour to get to know the 12 people whose work is being honoured today with a bespoke bench being placed in their local area.”
Dawn Austwick, CEO of The National Lottery Community Fund, said: “For 25 years The National Lottery has helped make amazing things happen, but never in such extraordinary times.
"People and communities have found themselves facing myriad challenges and pressures but have still found the passion and drive to support each other in so many ways. These bespoke community benches are a fitting tribute and show that their incredible work has not gone unnoticed and is in fact recognised, valued and inspiring others more than ever before.”