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Operation CommUNITY lifeline scheme lead lauds befriending helpline easing lockdown mental health issues

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Mental health is the biggest concern for the woman who spearheaded a lifeline community scheme for vulnerable people following the imposition of the coronavirus lockdowns and an army of volunteers is key.

Zara Skidmore, who is manager of Age Concern Bishop's Stortford and launched the Operation CommUNITY scheme, says the most important service being provided through the latest lockdown is the befriending phone line.

The need for help and support at the outset of the first lockdown was abundantly clear to Zara and she teamed up with other care agencies and issued a plea for volunteers to aid in the lifeline scheme.

It also came from the despair at having to close the Age Concern base at The New Apton Centre in Apton Road, a frustration which was shared by Zara's staff.

Mandy Reid and Zara Skidmore outside the New Apton Centre. Pic Vikki Lince. (44282014)
Mandy Reid and Zara Skidmore outside the New Apton Centre. Pic Vikki Lince. (44282014)

Ten months on and the need is all the greater as people struggle with months of isolation and fear.

"Befriending is a major issue and we are now supporting about 80 people," said Zara. Those accessing the service are seeking company, but when in conversation other needs become apparent.

The scheme is providing 200 meals on wheels and also supporting homeless people at old George pub in North Street.

"Some people are getting a meal and then it becomes a welfare check," said Zara.

Zara Skidmore. Pic Vikki Lince. (44282008)
Zara Skidmore. Pic Vikki Lince. (44282008)

Zara has spoken of her gratitude for the army of volunteers who have been providing lifeline support since the first lockdown.

"Volunteers were quick to respond and were able to get on with it - I was surprised at how adaptable people were," said Zara. "What the volunteers have been able to deliver is a lifeline."

She is frustrated at the continued closure of the Age Concern centre which provides a much-needed outlet for isolated older people. The centre's mission is promoting the health and well-being of all older people helping to make later life, a fulfilling and enjoyable experience, in an inclusive environment. It can play a crucial role in maintaining the mental health of its clients.

Zara says the confusion over the vaccination programme is another source of frustration. "Do we reopen even though our clients may only have 50% protection, or do we stay closed [to wait for the second vaccine] for longer," said Zara.

In the meantime Operation CommUNITY is there as a crutch to ensure vulnerable people feel there is support out there.

The key contact numbers for the scheme's services which are available 8am to 8pm daily and which includes a referral line for the Independent's HELP campaign are follows:

Befriending: 01279 942025

Welfare: 01279 942036

HELP line: 01279 942100

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