Change that leads to better lives

A Community Christmas

Charlotte Ramsden Blog 01

As the holiday season gets into full swing, mixed emotions are swirling in our communities. Personally, I love the anticipation and excitement, the time with family and friends, the lights, the food, the celebrations and the opportunity to reflect that comes with the waning of the year.

However, there is also the pain of lost loved ones and difficult experiences, together with an acute awareness, that for many, this season of good cheer can be the loneliest and darkest time of all. It brings into stark relief the differences in our collective lived experience but also offers a wonderful opportunity for goodwill and the true strength of community to shine through.

The value of strong and vibrant communities is increasingly recognized and within the devastating experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. The groundswell of strength and the impact of neighbours pulling together, was a major beneficial outcome. How then, do we harness the value of the community strength which has grown in Covid-19 and apply it to this Christmas season and our new year plans? What could a co-produced plan for community-led, inclusive wellbeing for all people look like, and how can we deliver it?

So many families have additional pressures heaped upon them through poverty, poor mental health, insecure housing, an unexpected illness or job loss as well as a lack of people to turn to for help and support. Many families were tipped into that place during the pandemic and for others their experiences worsened due to the unavailability of many of the support systems on which they relied. Whilst we all did our collective best to fill the gaps and virtual support systems blossomed, we are still discovering the true impact of Covid-19 on wider wellbeing and it’s not over yet!

During our daily walks in Covid-19 lockdowns, many of us reconnected with our neighbourhoods. The real people living in local streets who need encouragement, a smile and a wave, or real practical support and contact in their isolation. Inspirational stories of neighbours supporting each other, volunteers delivering food parcels and medicines, young people becoming digital buddies with older, housebound people who needed help to stay connected, singing in the streets, outdoor meet ups, the list is endless! For any child growing up, a vibrant community adds value, for those who face more challenges a vibrant community can change lives. The African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child” is both a truth and an opportunity.

As a Director of Children’s Services, I spend a lot of time working with partner agencies to build and deliver a vision for the best outcomes for children, and their families, and to knit services from right across the partnership together in ways that best meet their needs, whether that be for early support, safeguarding concerns, or caring for children in care.

Relationship based practice and “doing with, not to” is at the heart of successful support and in that system, our universal services are crucial. Schools, GPs, health clinics and children’s centres are often the first to spot that something isn’t quite right for a child, parent or carer. Increasingly our sports clubs, and other children’s activities do the same and our specialist services then work together to respond to concerns identified, but those wider services remain crucial to the support and wellbeing each family needs. It is a whole system approach, and the value of community is increasingly recognised in that system.

The pandemic has sadly compounded the stark inequalities in our society, from overcrowded housing to access to safe, outdoor spaces to play during the first lockdown. Inevitably, safeguarding concerns for children are higher in our more deprived areas, yet we have fewer resources to support families earlier. We are weaving more services together to tackle the impacts of deprivation and linking up with our housing options services, our welfare rights and debt advice and our adult provisions for mental health and substance misuse.

We need creative flexible community solutions and we need to enable communities to rise up and be part of that solution. In many places they already are and sports clubs, small charitable organisations, a wide range of faith groups, and volunteers with shared interests already make a huge difference to the quality of community life and to the lives of individual children.

Evidence is mounting that the impact of positive communities is real and I am pleased we are starting to shift support services closer to home. We are bringing extra support to the places that most children access and reducing the barriers created by asking them to go to an unknown place for extra support with team around the school approaches. We are developing Family Hubs with a vibrant offer for all ages, we are promoting youth work both in buildings and out on the streets. We are building spaces that people want to spend time in – community parks, community allotments, cycle paths, benches in squares and pop-up entertainment sites. We are engaging with community champions and volunteers and we are telling the stories of amazing people who make communities better for those who live there. We are seeing people with diverse cultures and life experiences sharing their lives and aspirations and growing closer together.

Despite so many great examples, many challenges remain. Society is struggling to find itself after the traumas of the pandemic. There are no quick fix solutions. Change begins with all of us. If each of us made one difference in our community next year or created one new link or opportunity in our current role, collectively we would see a big impact. Some of us may have big ideas and are ready to implement them, let’s do it in 2022!

For me, the new year of 2022 is a time of exciting opportunity in a time of huge challenge to build on the strength we know exists in communities and weave that into a neighbourhood approach to supporting children and families who need that bit extra. Whatever we do, we need to seek people’s strengths, value who they are and in doing so, bring more light into their lives. Wishing you a restorative Christmas season and a purposeful new year.

Follow charlotte on twitter @charlottehrams1 or find out more about the work in Salford @SalfordCouncil or ADCS @ADCStweets

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