Belfast Telegraph

Consumer: The benefits are now flowing from rural outreach scheme

By Claire McNeilly

Benefits to the tune of more than £350,000 have been issued to vulnerable households thanks to a new initiative.

That's because the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) joined forces with the Public Health Agency (PHA) to tackle poverty and social isolation in remote areas.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said more than 1,000 households have been helped so far, and that almost 100 people have received new or additional benefits since the project started last year.

Maximising Access in Rural Areas (MARA) aims to connect society's most vulnerable with benefit entitlements and services by using local knowledge.

Ms O'Neill said the hidden nature of poverty and isolation in Northern Ireland often results in people missing out or going without, which can in turn compound both problems.

"It is based on the premise that identifying vulnerable rural households, visiting people in these homes and using a personal touch encourages them to avail of services, grants and benefits which they would not otherwise have known about or had the wherewithal to apply for," she said.

To date, specially-trained staff have completed 4,800 initial household visits.

These calls involve the completion of a detailed household and personal assessment, as well as the provision of a range of information.

The information acquired is then used to make referrals for grants, benefits and services.

"These referrals will be followed through until such times as the householder receives the grant, benefit or service they are entitled to," said Ms O'Neill.

"A second home visit – of which 2,200 have already taken place – will be carried out for those households that received a referral to ensure the process is followed through to its conclusion."

MARA started in April 2012 and will run until late 2014. So far:

* 97 people have received additional or new benefits, which amount to an annual total of £358,000.

* 1,000-plus households have received equipment and advice to address home safety issues.

* 320 people have received significant energy efficiency measures through the Warm Homes scheme.

* 150 people have become members of their local Rural Community Transport Partnership.

* Others have benefited from referrals for a SmartPass, the ongoing boiler replacement scheme, occupational therapy assessment, social services assistance, as well as locally available services provided by the community and voluntary sector.

Ms O'Neill added: "I would strongly encourage people to make immediate contact with their local community network to arrange a MARA household visit."

Case studies

Noreen Boyd

Drumaness pensioner Noreen Boyd, a 71-year-old former classroom assistant, has had a brand new oil-fired heating system installed.

"I am so much more warm and comfortable in my home, and I've a few more pence in my purse, too," she said.

"When I retired last August I found my finances didn't stretch far beyond heating my home and putting food on the table. I was constantly carrying coal to the fire which heated the house. It was a strain both physically and financially. It was an old and antiquated fuel system but it was all that I had. MARA arranged for someone to visit me at home to make an assessment. Within weeks I was signed up for the Warm Homes Scheme and within a month I had a new heating system installed."


Edith Sullivan

Edith Sullivan (55) lives in the isolated hills of Dromara and works part-time in a doctor's surgery. "My home has undergone major insulation work thanks to MARA," she said. "I contacted them and simply asked them if they could do anything for me. A member of staff talked me through the various grants and benefits I might be eligible for, I had a benefits check and through the Warm Homes Scheme I had the walls of the house insulated, as well as the loft, the water tank and various pipes. It made such a difference to the house. Out in the hills of Dromara it can get very cold in the winter."


Kate Stewart

Arthritis sufferer Kate Stewart (52), a mother-of-three and grandmother-of-three, lives alone in Cushendall. "I was finding life a bit of a struggle, to be honest," she said.

"I knew I was probably entitled to benefits and grants, but I didn't know where to go or what to do. Then someone from MARA told me all about the various grants, benefits and services available.

"An assessment from occupational therapists led to me receiving help through the NIHE Disabled Facilities Grant. Through it I've had work done in my bathroom. I've had a chair and hoist installed as well as a new raised toilet. I've also had an assistance rail put up in the bedroom.

"When you suffer arthritis these things make life much more comfortable."


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