Communities 1st: A lifeline for many

From taking the elderly to the shops to taking provisions to the elderly. Communities 1st has stepped up to the mark during the coronavirus crisis

Elstree-based Communities 1st was set up 18 months ago to support older people who could otherwise be secluded in their own homes.

Volunteering Development Manager Tom Watkins is passionate about helping others. “I really love my job and I love coming in every day,” he says. “These people would otherwise be isolated.”

With a fleet of five vehicles, four paid drivers and 20 volunteers, the aim is to help people access their community and feel more independent.

Communities 1st

Tom says: “Quite a lot of our passengers would otherwise not be able to do their own shopping.

“They’re not massively mobile and would have difficulty getting to the bus stop.”

The charity’s mantra is to provide accessible, affordable door-to-door transport for people with mobility problems; thereby promoting better access to healthcare, greater community participation and increased social inclusion.

Plans for the fleet

The current fleet comprises of two Mellor Tucanas described by Tom as “very old”. He says: “We’re currently looking at upgrading to the new Mellor Orion E.

“We’re trying to get more environmentally-friendly and reduce our carbon footprint.

“Once we get an electric fleet of vehicles and some charging points we will run more economically.”

The charity also has three Ford MPVs which are wheelchair accessible.

Tom says the whole fleet will eventually be replaced with electric vehicles. He adds: “We are looking at funding sources at the moment.

“There’s still two pieces of government funding out there. One is only open to people with section 22 permits which we don’t operate, we have section 19, but there is a rural mobility grant that we may be able to get.

“We have a funding guru who advises us and our members on funding.”

A lifeline for some

Communities 1st runs under the umbrella of Hertfordshire Community Transport which has been running for over 20 years.

18 months ago, Communities 1st was formed as a charity that helps other charities and is separate from, but commissioned by, Hertfordshire County Council to provide some of its services.

There are four departments and the community driving scheme is managed under the volunteer centre.

The minibuses are mainly used for shopping trips. People are picked up from their homes in a ‘door to store’ service. They are left at the shopping area for two to three hours and often have lunch together before being picked up and taken home.

Radlett and Borehamwood have two circuits and Bushey has one.

Tom says: “We currently only pick people up and transport people who live in the Hertsmere area which is about 130 regular passengers.”

The minibuses operate from Monday to Friday and a community car scheme is available over the weekend.

The service really is a lifeline for some.

“People say they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get out,” says Tom. “It’s given them a new lease of life.

“They are really complimentary to the people that take them, and say they go above and beyond.”

Other ways of helping

Once a week the minibus takes people to the SavaCentre London Colney. They are accompanied by a ‘bus buddy’.

“This is someone to accompany them on and off the bus, help with their shopping when they get back home and help them around the shop if they need some help,” says Tom.

“It’s a friendly face – someone they can get used to.

“We have a big pool of volunteers and the bus buddies are mostly young people who just want to spend their time helping people out.”

The next step is adding ‘digital champions’ to the buses.

“Some of our bus buddies are looking to become digital champions in the future,” explains Tom. “It is a way of providing extra value on that service.

“If they are on their way to the supermarket and they bring their smart phone with them the bus buddy can teach them how to use their technology during the journey.

“It’s all sorts of things from switching the phone on, to sending a message, setting up a password; and as time progresses people will be using apps more.

“Our digital champions can also sit with them in a café after they’ve done their shopping and look at their phone or tablet with them.

“Some of them have smart speakers as well, that they have had for a birthday or Christmas and they don’t know what to do with them.

“So our bus buddies will pop into their home with them and help them in that way.”

Taking part

People can become members of the scheme for just £10 a year and then phone and book a space on the bus. A child or carer often books, and the more vulnerable clients are called by the office to check if they want their weekly space.

“It’s a really good way of checking on people and making sure they know that someone cares,” says Tom.

“For most of our passengers it’s the only time during the week when they go out.

On a Tuesday there is the recently launched town centre shopping trip, which is in addition to the supermarket runs.

Tom explains, “We will pick them up from home and drop them at a shopmobility centre wherever that is located in town. The driver will help them book their mobility equipment out for the day, leave them there to do their shopping and whatever business they need to do, then pick them up later and take them home.”

On Mondays the charity runs day trips. “We’ve had marvellous feedback about this,” says Tom.

Communities 1st

People are taken to points of interest such as museums and garden centres. They have also visited Windsor and the RAF museum in Henley and gone out for afternoon tea.

“Keeping people alive is one thing – but actually helping them to live a good quality of life – that’s the really important thing.

“One or two of them still drive but they go out for the social element of being on the bus and travelling with a group of friends.”

Future plans

In the autumn the charity will be expanding into the Three Rivers district of Watford.

“The likelihood is that our demand will double so it will be an extra shopping route per day,” says Tom.

“That is when I would like to replace the entire fleet, initially looking at getting one electric bus and one electric MPV to start us off.

“In the long term we’ll get rid of the older two but in the short term we’d like an extra one as our service increases in demand.

“We would like to reduce the impact of that service demand by having an electric vehicle, but eventually we’d like to replace the old one as well.”

But for now, with the coronavirus COVID-19 situation, the service has taken a different direction, with volunteer drivers running provisions to the members in a ‘store to door’ service.

850 volunteers have signed up to help keep the community running and connected to vital support.

Tom says: “This is not just food but medication, clothing, cleaning supplies and sanitary products. Befriending calls are being made and pets looked after.

“Our fleet is also being used to carry low risk passengers where we can and vital supplies to where they are needed.

“We are some people’s only link to the community.”