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Age UK Lewisham to take on Community Transport and Befriending Services from next month

We’re excited to announce that Age UK Lewisham & Southwark will soon be incorporating two existing services into our work. Access Lewisham Community Transport and Lewisham Befriending, both of which have been run successfully for decades by our long-standing partner Voluntary Services Lewisham (VSL), will transition to the Age UK Lewisham team from the end of July. We were recently given the green light by VSL’s Trustees to take on their delivery following the sad news that VSL would be closing after more than 50 years of proud service.

Since their establishment in 1969, VSL have faithfully supported residents of Lewisham through volunteer-led projects including their community transport scheme, befriending network and mental health drop-ins. Our close relationship developed through acting as delivery partners for our pre-Covid Community Connections service. During the tumultuous early months of the Covid-19 pandemic we quickly joined up with them in leading the Covid-19 Community Support Hub, arranging urgent food deliveries and befriending referrals for Lewisham’s most vulnerable residents. It has been a pleasure to work in partnership with them over the past decade and we are sad to see them close.


Lewisham Befriending

Ever since VSL opened their doors they have been matching volunteer befrienders with housebound and isolated residents struggling with issues including loneliness, bereavement and mobility loss. Since last year the project has been run by VSL stalwart Sandra McGregor, who we’re delighted to say will be joining our Age UK team and continuing as Project Coordinator. Sandra began working with VSL in 2011 and was responsible for setting up their first ever befriending drop-in in Deptford. Later, during the fraught early months of the pandemic she took a leading role in expanding the project’s volunteer pool, which now boasts 250 befrienders. We greatly look forward to having her on our team and benefitting from her wealth of knowledge and experience!

After launching Community Connections Lewisham in September 2020, the VSL befriending scheme became one of our first key partners and in the last year financial year alone our team referred 319 service users to the service. At the same time our research has revealed an overall scarcity in befriending services across the borough. The work we do has made us acutely aware of the huge impact that befrienders can make to the wellbeing of the people they visit, and taught us that we need more of them! We feel privileged to be taking on responsibility for this vital project. Its continuation and growth will ensure that our target group can receive the benefits of a friendly weekly chat. At the same time it will mean more volunteering opportunities for local adults who want to support their community, and improve their own wellbeing and employability skills in the process!


Access Lewisham Community Transport

Alongside befriending we will also now be taking on the community transport scheme, known up until now as ‘Access Lewisham’. Using 2 large minibuses and a team of volunteers driving their own vehicles, the scheme provides a lifeline to disabled and vulnerable residents needing support to get around the borough. This might be for getting to and from weekly social groups or a local day centre, or it could be for more practical needs such as attending hospital appointments, vaccination centres and being escorted to the supermarket.

Pictured below: Stewart, one of the transport teams regular drivers

From 2018-2019 I had the pleasure of volunteering myself for the service, learning to safely escort passengers from inside their homes to the minibus and then into their local day centre. I received great training in things like Passenger Assistance and First Aid, but the most impactful thing was the insight it gave me into the many barriers faced by elderly and vulnerable residents. The regular passengers I met faced a range of challenges such as being wheelchair-users, visually impaired or living with a dementia diagnosis, and the majority of them lived alone. It was clear how indispensable the transport service was in enabling them to access their community. 

One of the regular drop-off points for the service has been the Albany Centre in Deptford, where many older residents gather on Tuesday mornings for ‘Meet me at the Albany’ groups run by local charity Entelechy Arts. Pictured below from left to right is Carmen, a regular attendee, along with Lauren (volunteer), Stuart (VSL driver) and Jasmine (Entelechy Arts Relationship & Access Coordinator). Carmen uses the transport project each week to get to her group and says of the service ‘The drivers are excellent, all of them. Very, very nice. There’s nothing that’s too much for them to do to get you in and out of the car.

‘We really rely on the transport service for getting people to the Meet Me groups. It’s not only affordable but the drivers are patient, meet you at the door, and support you in and out of the car. It’s also lovely to see how the drivers have built up such a rapport with our members - I’ve heard that some of the members even do a karaoke on the way to choir (hopefully not distracting the drivers too much). I’m so grateful for all that VSL has done for the Meet Me groups, and so glad that Age UK will be continuing this vital service’ ~Jasmine, Entelechy Arts

 Unlike the befriending project, the Access Lewisham project has no current staff lead, so we’re busy recruiting a full-time Transport Coordinator to oversee the team of drivers and manage new bookings.  With the minibus wheels already in motion and over 30 return trips happening each week, we are working hard to ensure a quick and smooth transition and hope to have the coordinator start as early as next week!  Also joining us from the VSL is Tracey Pauline, who has been the Finance Manager there for the past four years and will soon be joining the Age UK Finance team. 

We look forward to welcoming Sandra, Tracey and the new Transport Coordinator into our team as we take on this exciting new challenge.