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6 Feb 2012
Tracy Hammond, communication and involvement director at VODG member KeyRing

Community is key to independent living

With spending cuts biting and the number of support hours available from paid staff reducing, it's time that we as a sector got real about supporting the people with whom we work to connect to their community and to carve out a life which is not dependent on people who are paid to be with them.

Tracy HammondAt KeyRing, we are passionate about the difference in people's lives that community connections can make: time and again, we have seen confidence flourish, skills develop, and ultimately the need for paid-for support reduce.

Neither the theory nor the reality of what we do is rocket science. People who are visible and valued in their community are less likely to be isolated, they become mentally healthier, more resourceful and give and receive support which is a natural part of friendship.

We find that the best way to support this kind of community connection is with local volunteers - people who live in the community, and have a sense of ownership and connection with it themselves - supporting others to “get stuck in”.

With the current emphasis on cost saving, localism and big society, the benefits of this approach would be instantly apparent, right?

Wrong. We're finding that restrictive, input-based thinking prevents support which would provide real outcomes. For example, some local authorities won't recognise the value or the cost of volunteers. Others are so caught up with the provision of staff at specific hourly rates that they completely miss the fact that support of any kind should be tied to outcomes for the individual. A natural result of achieved outcomes is the reduction in the costs which they are trying to control.

KeyRing has a model of support based on a network of around 10 homes; this encourages mutual support and community connections. We have a volunteer living in each network, and the other people in the network (our members) are people with support needs. The volunteer sees members regularly, like a good neighbour, and he or she helps with things like reading bills, forms and letters.

KeyRing Map

The volunteer also supports members to explore the neighbourhood and get involved. We have support workers and managers who make sure that members get the support they need. We have approximately 90 volunteers and 900 members.

Take Bert, when he joined a KeyRing network in North Wales, staff did what's called a relationship map with him. At this point, the only people that he could place in his intimacy circle were support workers and the only people he knew were those who were paid to spend time with him. Six years later, Bert held a joint birthday party with another KeyRing member. There were 30 well-wishers at this party and his intimacy circle now features true friends.

The volunteer supported him to make contact with a local group belonging to the conservation and environment charity BCTV, and he has since been named as their volunteer of the year several times. Other network members decided they wanted an allotment, so Bert was able to help here too.

It is difficult to provide a full overview of Bert's life because much of what he now does is organic and spontaneous, in fact KeyRing only hears how valued he is within the community when someone stops the volunteer to say what he's recently done for them!

What we do know is that someone returned home following a stay in hospital to find their garden in bloom because Bert planted it for them.  We also know that Bert went on holiday with a friend from his network again last year, that he gets together with other local people to share a meal and that he now feels secure enough in his home to begin to buy it.

Bert isn't a fluke; other people receiving KeyRing support have seen their lives improve through volunteer led community connections too.

There were a couple of members of a North Wales KeyRing network who were expecting children. The nursery which the children were to attend has space outside but this was unsafe and in need of attention. The network organised a sponsored bike ride to raise funds for the restoration of the area. This activity was held at a local park and the bike hire agency donated the hire fee to the work at the nursery. The relationships generated here resulted in network members becoming key holders for the hire site.

The good experience enjoyed by the members has, in many cases, reinvigorated their interest in a healthier lifestyle and will lead to other events. In addition to this, the group have formed a football team and have extended a challenge to other local organisations. They have formed good links with Rhyl FC, which has resulted in television coverage of the efforts made by members.

football team

None of this has happened by chance and at the centre of all these achievements have been volunteers. Could the same have been achieved by workers who don't live in the same community?  Somehow I doubt it. The way we work also reflects national policy towards collaboration, co-production and community empowerment.

In one of the networks I've mentioned above, nine members had 213 hours of additional support per week when they first joined us. In the second year this dropped to nine hours - we make this a saving of around £3,000 a week and over £150,000 a year.

So if the anecdotal evidence of positive outcomes or the policy drivers aren't enough to persuade you of the community-based approach, then what about the fact that it saves money?

* Later in the year the VODG with NTDi (National Development Team for inclusion) will be running a roundtable workshop on community inclusion and strategies for providers to adopt to promote outward looking practice.

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