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The pandemic volunteers: Book celebrates 'ordinary people' who swept into action to help Northern Ireland communities during lockdown


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On your bike: Retired photographer Martin Boyd helped collect and deliver prescriptions, PPE and essential supplies

On your bike: Retired photographer Martin Boyd helped collect and deliver prescriptions, PPE and essential supplies

On your bike: Retired photographer Martin Boyd helped collect and deliver prescriptions, PPE and essential supplies

Food bank packers, prescription delivery drivers, telephone befrienders and children's storytellers - all these and more are celebrated in a new ebook launched by Volunteer Now to celebrate NI's Covid-19 heroes.

The project, called Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times, organised in conjunction with the Department for Communities, follows the Volunteer Now #HelpEachOther campaign which was launched in March to promote Covid-19 related volunteering opportunities and which saw more than 4,000 volunteers register across NI.

Volunteer Now chief executive Denise Hayward (52) says the organisation registered double the number of volunteers in just three weeks early in lockdown as it would normally have registered for a whole year.

She says the photography book project will stand as a record of the lockdown period that everyone has been living through.

"We are immensely proud of the work of the volunteers in helping to navigate this crisis," she says. "We want to ensure the efforts of Northern Ireland's volunteering community are acknowledged and recorded for future generations as they look back on this unprecedented period of time."

Here are some of the volunteers who feature in the new book.

The motorcyclist

'I had the time ... I just did what I believe to be my civic duty'

Retired photographer Martin Boyd (58), from Bangor, is married to pharmacy dispenser Nicola (55) and has two children, Jess (22) and Stuart (27).

A motorcyclist for 40 years, he joined forces with Volunteer Bikers NI early in lockdown, using his motorcycle to deliver necessities to those in need including prescriptions, PPE and essential supplies.

"At the very start of lockdown, because I had time on my hands, I decided I would offer my services to the vulnerable and needy in the local community," Martin says.

"I set up a local Facebook page and by word of mouth I offered myself round the local community to collect prescriptions and shopping. In one case there was an older couple who were isolating and they urgently needed toilet paper so I got it for them and took it to them on my motorbike."

After three weeks, Martin was contacted by the person who had set up the Volunteer Bikers Group and asked to join forces.

"We spent virtually all of the lockdown period collecting and delivering prescriptions and PPE," he says.

"Most of my deliveries were around north Down and Ards, but some were as far afield as Newry and Dungannon."

Martin says there were around 200 bikers delivering essentials across NI.

And he admits it was quite eerie travelling on the empty roads early in lockdown with no-one else in sight.

"It was absolutely wonderful from a motorcycling point of view," he recalls. "I went to Portaferry in the middle of April to deliver PPE and I used my GoPro to film the journey the whole way down to Portaferry and the whole way back, and the roads were virtually empty. But it did help me cope, it gave me a purpose and kept me focused."

He adds: "In a number of cases people said to me and the other volunteers that we had changed their entire perspective on motorcyclists. One older gentleman told me he had been a bit wary of asking for help from a motorcycle group - he had a vision of bringing Hell's Angels up to his door! But he said what we'd done was absolutely superb.

"I just did what I believe to be my civic duty. I had the resources, I had the time and I thought I could be useful here."

The singer

'I think people were just looking for something to do'

Professional singer and music teacher Bethany Coulter (22) from Brookeborough in Co Fermanagh was furloughed from her part-time job in a day care centre and got involved in the Fun and Fitness project, holding outdoor singing and dancing classes across the country to encourage residents to come out of their homes and socialise safely with their neighbours.

"I think that first night when everybody went into lockdown was when it became real," Bethany says.

"I was living in the city when the news came through and I wanted to go home because I would have more family and more people around me.

"The next day I packed up my stuff and went home."

Bethany says it was about a month into lockdown when she heard about the Fun and Fitness project through the Healthy Living Centre where her mum works in Lisnaskea.

"It was going to be voluntary, where we got people to dance and sing and keep people's minds off the fear, and help people with their mental wellbeing and put a bit of happiness into everything," she says.

"It was socially distanced of course, but it was still very community-based and you got to smile at people across the road.

"I was doing it twice a week for about three or four hours, going round all the different villages in Fermanagh and doing half an hour in each area. We would go in, set up and do a couple of songs, get everybody to sing together, teach everybody the dances and get them to join in. Basically line dances is what I would call them, YMCA and things like that.

"In some places it went down a storm and everybody really enjoyed it and got involved: in other places it was more the children who got involved. I think people were just looking for something to do and this came right to their doorstep."

The reader

'It gave us a good connection and a sense of wellbeing'

Geraldine Galloway (67), a retired sales assistant from Sion Mills, worked with young age groups to carry out online reading sessions during lockdown as part of the Verbal Arts Centre's WellRead Digital Reading Rooms project. She also continued her Listen, Share Change reading group over Zoom. A mother-of-five, she is married to Edward and has four grandchildren.

"It probably was Christmas time that I started taking notice of it all when the first of the reports started to come out on TV about the virus in China," she says.

"I had my masks ordered online very early, before the end of January, and I didn't even tell my family.

"My husband has a lot of health issues so we were isolating. From March 15 or 16 we stopped going out and about for about six weeks. My son did my shopping for me. I have asthma anyway, so we just stayed indoors."

Geraldine says she had been doing the Reading Rooms and Listen, Share, Change and once lockdown started she was asked if she would be interested in taking part over Zoom.

"I would do the reading and we would discuss the story at the end and have different conversations," she says.

"It gets everybody's mind active in different ways. Sometimes everyone laughs, sometimes it's sad, and everybody gets to know one another.

"It gave us a good connection and a sense of wellbeing. It was something to get up for and look forward to. Some of the older people would get their hair done and their make-up, some would get dressed up.

"They could share what they were doing themselves and talk about their problems. And I got a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from doing it."

The full set of images from the Ordinary People - Extraordinary Times Photographic Series is available to download as an ebook via the Volunteer Now website at www.volunteernow.co.uk/volunteering/helpeachother/ordinary-people-extraordinary-times

Belfast Telegraph