Restoring Lost Connections

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

“People have been in tears on their doorsteps; they were asking – how did you think of me?” Wendy Kerr, who manages Impact Network NI, talks with passion as she articulates how many of the connections they forged during the coronavirus period had a depth to them.

“People were talking more, there were emotional chats at their doors, men were opening up more about their mental health.”

Impact Network NI works at the core of communities to challenge the impact of poverty & economic crisis; it’s been mainly focussed in County Antrim & mid-Ulster, but aims to reach well beyond too. When lockdown became real, the team co-ordinated an emergency response in terms of rescue packs – but how people were doing mentally soon became their focus.

“This is an area that has suffered major job losses & actually a lot of people had just got back into work,” Wendy reflects. Over recent years Impact Network NI had set up a series of skills’ workshops in response to a number of manufacturing companies closing in County Antrim.

“We had been engaging with people on a very personal basis; a lot of men had opened up to us about their concerns. So, a massive focus for us during covid became how could we retain these conversations & work through it with them.”

Food parcels became a way in to people’s lives & as the team connected out in the communities, they encountered a whole mixture of emotions on the doorsteps.

“We found we came to people’s homes & they were finding it difficult to connect,” Wendy explains. “So honestly, people were just so glad to see another face. Disconnect for many was real. People were so scared physically to go out of their homes – elderly people hadn’t even seen their neighbours & so connection was crucial.”

But poverty was very to the fore too. Wendy Kerr says they encountered some people who didn’t have more than 2 slices of bread left.

“People don’t want to be seen as down & out; and when they lift the phone to ask for help they can feel a failure. What we are trying to communicate is that this is a strength.”

As well as knocking doors the Impact Network team checked in with over 1500 community groups. They also commissioned a mental health survey to get an honest picture of what was going. They found that 45% of people were experiencing negative mental health & wellbeing because of lockdown; that 40% were more anxious & half of those surveyed with struggling with lost social connections.

This reality formed the basis of their work during covid – they held a men’s health week where they hosted workshops on mindfulness & cookery. Some men, Wendy says, have contacted their GP with health worries, as a result.

They plan to step up this type of activity over the summer with horticultural packs, slow cooker packs & community challenges.

“We didn’t want to disempower people,” Wendy explains. “People can easily feel worthless but we want them to feel like they have so much worth & value.

“We want to show people we will get through this, that there is light. We see people build up resilience; it’s not just about giving & then leaving ppl to it; it’s about encouraging people to connect & keep that going.”

In the 3 months since lockdown began Impact Network NI has connected with over 2 thousand people through packs & have summer plans to extend their reach further.

For Wendy, at the core of this experience has been the reward of seeing communities find their own resilience & forge new relationships: “We’ve struggled with building good relations for so long here, but how communities really connected through this time means a lot to people.

“It’s about people realising how they can react positively to something horrific in their minds & then convert it into a positive; there’s such a strength in that.”

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