A socially-distanced year for The Welbeloved Club...

At the start of the year, we could never have imagined what was yet to unfold. When I think back to our January, February and March lunch meetings, the term 'Covid-19' was nothing we were concerning ourselves with. I don't think there was even an official record of any cases in the UK back in January, so we certainly weren't worried. We were definitely still at that stage where we refused to give in to the scaremongering, and as a team we were in agreement that this was probably just a 'bad cold'. Like most, we didn't realise what was to come. When we arrived at mid-March, we were actually still deliberating whether to run our April lunch or not (not wanting to face reality more like), but we kind of knew where it was heading. Once the first lockdown was announced on the 23rd March, the decision was made for us and The Welbeloved Club had to temporarily close the doors.

And so as I write, we are a few days away from 2021 and still no closer to knowing when we might be able to reopen as a lunch club. However, despite the challenges we have faced this year, 2020 has been a year of growth for us and I actually couldn't be prouder of what we have achieved as a charity.

Firstly, The Welbeloved Club became a registered charity in June. From the outside it might not seem like much, but the hard work that went in to making this a reality is astonishing. It's always been a dream of mine to be the founder of a charity however small, so I guess 2020 has been a year I can tick something off my 'bucket list'. Becoming a charity opens so many doors for us in many ways, and establishes us as a professional service that now has the ability to grow and evolve in many directions. Not only that, but we now have an experienced board of Trustees who can guide me and advise me on decision making, financial growth and everything I need to be aware of when running a charity. Not to mention I now have a team that can take charge of the 'boring bits' - also known as PAPERWORK!

When we closed the doors in March, we were forced to adapt and find other ways of tackling loneliness without putting people at risk. A difficult task, given that the general solution to isolation is mixing with others and leaving the house. Nevertheless, we managed it to a degree. When the schools closed, I was contacted by my old primary school All Saints in Bishop's Stortford, who had a few parents who wanted to start a penpal scheme with us. I've seen and read so many programmes and articles that detail the benefits of cross-generational interaction and socialisation, so I didn't hesitate. Before long, I was receiving letters from children all over the local area and was only too pleased to forward these letters on to our members. I'm delighted to say that some beautiful friendships have developed, with many meeting in person (at a distance) by hosting garden meets and parties, helping with cub badges and even hosting on Christmas Day. I couldn't have imagined this scheme working any better, and I'm so grateful to all the wonderful children and families who have offered such warm hospitality and friendship to their new buddies.

My mum, not able to do what she loves, asked me in June whether or not there was a need for a takeaway Sunday lunch service. We agreed there was, and we soon identified a dozen or so members we thought would benefit most from a hot Sunday lunch every week. Of course in an ideal world we would be doing takeaways for everyone, but we are limited by space, capacity and the requirement to still socially distance as much as possible. With volunteering activities still allowed, we've been delivering hot meals near enough every Sunday for the past 6 months. It's been a lot of work, but we have been more motivated than ever to deliver this service given the circumstances. And when December arrived, the kind donations came flooding in and for the first time ever, we were able to deliver lots of food to 8 members on Christmas Day. We've been inundated with thanks and praise for how much we were able to deliver (including a bottle of wine!) but really, it is all thanks to those that donated. Companies include NKD, Cuttsy & Cuttsy, Harris Tobias and a number of individuals who gave so generously.

And how can I not mention the success of Operation Christmas Cheer? I actually have my sister to thank! As we couldn't host Christmas lunch this year, she suggested we run something similar to Operation Christmas Child - the annual scheme run by Samaritan's Purse. 'What if we don't get any though?' I said. How wrong I was! I asked the Bishop's Stortford Independent for support, and as always they gave us everything we needed. We asked for around 140 parcels (one for each member) and by the end, we received just under 500 gifts! We were absolutely swamped, but utterly overwhelmed by the generosity of our local community. All during the campaign the praise was aimed at me, but I cannot tell you enough how many people were involved in making this happen. I really was and continue to be such a small part of The Welbeloved Club machine, and couldn't do any of the ideas without help (and a lot of it!).

On Saturday 19th December, 22 of our volunteers spent the day delivering the gifts across the area, with some tears of joy on the doorstep. Nobody was expecting it, and it seems to have brightened what had been a really difficult weekend (we had just heard we were heading into tier 4). The remaining boxes went to a number of other organisations including Company at Christmas and 3 care homes in Bishop's Stortford. A number of boxes were also distributed across Braughing village, where a number of lonely older people had been identified by one of our volunteers. So every single one reached a very worthy recipient!

Have I covered everything? Probably not! 2020 has been such a dreadful year for so many - we've never taken for granted what we have and we've tried our best to continue our vital work in the local community. It's a saving grace that volunteering and helping vulnerable members of society is still 'allowed', but quite frankly nothing would have stopped us. We've worked incredibly hard at making club what it is, and we are fiercely aware of the responsibility we have now to make life brighter for our members. We desperately miss our lunch meets, but we'll carry on being here and serving all those that need us until life is back to some sort of normality.

Thank you to everyone who has supported us this year, and supported us from the start. It feels really special to run a charity that people care so deeply about, and recognise how important it is to play our part in ending loneliness. A special thank you to the Bishop's Stortford Independent who have supported literally everything we've ever done - I truly believe we wouldn't be where we are without them. I'm sure some people are sick of seeing us in the paper nearly every week, but genuinely charities like ours rely on the community to keep going.

Wishing you all a very happy New Year - let's hope 2021 sees us back together again and getting on like we should be!

Jo x