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Gravesham Community Awards heap praise on unsung pandemic heroes and long-serving volunteers

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In a year in which people have been kept physically apart, the collective will of ordinary citizens – both young and old – has helped bring a community closer together.

That was the message at today's Gravesham Community Awards in which pandemic heroes and unsung local residents were singled out for praise.

Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox was on hand to greet the winners at the Gravesham Community Awards
Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox was on hand to greet the winners at the Gravesham Community Awards

From religious temples and homeless hubs preparing thousands of warm meals for NHS workers and hungry mouths, to hip hop musical collectives casting a light on the challenges facing the most vulnerable.

The awards, hosted by Gravesham council, aimed to honour those who stepped up to assist their community and support others during the long weeks of lockdown.

It was held in conjunction with the borough's community awards, traditionally presented in April each year but postponed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The mayor of Gravesham, Cllr John Caller, and the council’s cabinet member for community and leisure, Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox, presented both sets of awards during an invitation-only ceremony.

In total, there were 58 nominations for 30 individuals or organisations.

The Gravesham Community Awards winners
The Gravesham Community Awards winners

Among those celebrated were the Guru Nanak Temple in Gravesend whose Langar food delivery service provided more than 60,000 meals to vulnerable residents during lockdown.

Langar, is the term used in Sikhism for a community kitchen where a free meal is served to all visitors, regardless of faith or ethnicity.

Manpreet Singh Dhaliwal, Mukh Sewadar, president of the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara said the temple felt morally compelled to help when it was forced to close for prayer.

The 31-year-old said: "We welcome people to come and have a free hot meal. But because of lockdown we had to close our doors."

Instead the temple devised a plan to deliver meals through its roster of growing volunteers and helped deliver meals and medical scrubs to Darent Valley Hospital at the height of the pandemic .

And those lending their time for a worthy cause were not limited just to Sikhs either, as Manspreet added: "It has brought together the whole community. Non-Sikhs were coming to help and get involved".

Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara group at the Gravesham Community Awards
Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara group at the Gravesham Community Awards

Another group whose services remain very much in demand is the Homeless Hub at Gravesend Methodist Church, led by community centre manager Vicki Clarke.

Its daytime centre in Wilfred Street managed to run three drop-in sessions a week providing a cooked meal, laundry and other services during lockdown, and was overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic .

On her individual nomination Vicki said: "I was quite gobsmacked to be honest. When I got the email I thought it was the wrong person.

"I felt embarrassed because my volunteers are the real heroes. Everyone has just been amazing."

But she went on to explain their work was far from over.

"There are still so many people that are homeless," she said. "People you would never imagine to be homeless."

Vicki Clarke, of the Methodist Church homeless hub and her volunteers at the Gravesham Community Awards
Vicki Clarke, of the Methodist Church homeless hub and her volunteers at the Gravesham Community Awards

This week alone she says three women had come in reporting domestic violence issues and the hub would now seek to help them with practical support and mental health counselling.

The soup kitchen is hoping to set up separate groups for both women and men who Vicki says "just don't talk".

Mental health, she said, remains the biggest problem the centre faces day-to-day with a desperate need for further funding for these services, which they run in conjunction with Kent homeless charity Porchlight.

"Motivation and self esteem is at rock bottom at the moment and it has been really sad to see," she added.

But for some receiving community awards, the act of volunteering has been a real boost to their mental health.

Nicky Collins started helping out twice a week last August with Gravesham Food Bank inside the Riverside Centre, Denton.

Nicky Collins was proclaimed a pandemic hero at the Gravesham Community Awards
Nicky Collins was proclaimed a pandemic hero at the Gravesham Community Awards

The 47-year-old – who suffers from fibromyalgia, a debilitating condition which causes widespread pain and extreme tiredness – said the experience had helped her make new friends and boosted her confidence.

Nicky first got involved on the advice of a friend who asked her whether she had ever thought about working at a food bank.

She said: "I thought about it and came along and she ended up leaving and I took her place."

The mum of four has been collecting parcels from local supermarkets with her husband and has also helped organise local street collections and worked with the City Praise Centre to prepare their daily packed lunch delivery service.

Of the people she served she said a lot were homeless but there were also many single parent families and individuals, adding "a lot of them were on furlough or lost their job".

"A lot of people have never done this before," she said, explaining part of her role was to help reassure people.

Pandemic hero awards held by Gravesham council
Pandemic hero awards held by Gravesham council

On this point she hastened to warn against the stigma of using or signing up to such services.

"We are not here to judge you," she said. "What we care about is your safety and health and looking after you."

Gravesend music group GTown Talents have also been working to break down barriers and raise awareness of taboo subjects by giving young people a creative outlet through music and film.

Boredom, accessibility of drugs and dysfunctional family homes were just some of the issues identified in their videos which aim to encourage young people to respect the coronavirus rules .

The young rappers also lent their vocals to a fundraiser for ellenor hospice in Northfleet which was plunged into financial dire straits as a direct result of the pandemic.

More recently, the team released a short mental health drama on Youtube to raise the profile of issues affecting young people during lockdown.

GTown Talents at the Gravesham Community Awards
GTown Talents at the Gravesham Community Awards

The project is led by Jimmy Babalola with business partner Jordan Chawner, together with creative director VybeRoom.

Jimmy said: "We have got so many projects lined up. The next one is going to be about domestic abuse."

On their nomination and award he said "this is what it is all about", adding they had received some great feedback on their work.

The wider Community Awards also sought to share the wonderful work of unsung local heroes, many of which have volunteered in the area for a long time and others who are new to the area.

Among the winners were Olga Sienkiewicz who runs a playgroup in Northfleet and was nominated by all the mums whose children attend.

The 31-year-old mum, who is originally from Poland, moved to Gravesend last year but found herself isolated initially.

Olga Sienkiewicz, second from right, and her mum's support group at the Gravesham Community Awards
Olga Sienkiewicz, second from right, and her mum's support group at the Gravesham Community Awards

She said: "I moved from London and I didn't know anyone so I started to go to church groups."

It was here she met other mums and she set up a playgroup for their children to play and socialise which is open to everyone.

The group met regularly in St Mark's Church prior to the pandemic and Olga now counts the other parents among her friends and have continued to meet up whenever possible in local parks during lockdown.

Long-term volunteer Ian Dunkley was also thanked for his service to the community at the socially-distanced do.

The 67-year-old served 26 years as a navy rescue officer and shares his maritime experience to help enhance learning opportunities for young people at Gravesend sea cadets.

He assists with the running of volunteer activities for around 35 to 40 young people, covering everything from kayaking to operating seacraft.

Ian Dunkley at the Gravesham Community Awards
Ian Dunkley at the Gravesham Community Awards

Ian said: "It is quite vital really. People are given the opportunity to take part in activities they otherwise might not afford to."

This, he added, provides them with much sought-after skills, whether it be for employment or life in general.

If that wasn't dedication enough to his community, Ian also fulfils the role of parade commander for key events in the borough including Remembrance services, Armed Forces Day and Second World War commemorations.

Another volunteer with a penchant for learning and self development is Alan Skelton, who is district centre manager at Gravesham Scouts’ Hopehill Campsite in Meopham .

"It was a bit of a shock when I found out I was put forward," the 75-year-old said.

The Scout leader spends a minimum of one or two hours a day at the site dealing with maintenance and assisting with visiting groups.

Alan Skelton with his Gravesham Community Award
Alan Skelton with his Gravesham Community Award

Sadly, group sizes have been cut in line with social distancing rules and have not been able to meet up regularly during the lockdown.

Despite this, Alan says he still gets a buzz out of teaching important outdoor skills such as pioneering and tying knots with ropes.

Other winners announced at the ceremony included Terry Ludlow, 76, of Istead Rise who regularly litter picks and clears footpaths around the village as well as volunteering at ellenor hospice, and working as a courier for Darent Valley Hospital.

Dave Taylor was credited for his work as the Poppy Appeal organiser for Gravesham, raising huge sums for the appeal and increasing the funds raised by 60% in six years.

Meopham resident Jennifer Giles also received praise for her volunteer work with St John’s Church where she heads up the pastoral care team.

At 78, Jennifer still actively supports people in need, providing home and hospital visits and helping those with dementia and their carers.

Terry Ludlow at the Gravesham Community Awards
Terry Ludlow at the Gravesham Community Awards

Handing out the awards, mayor of Gravesham Cllr Caller said: “Those individuals and groups receiving awards today are a credit to our borough.

“Their selfless donation of their valuable time and energy, in good times as well as bad, help make the lives of the less fortunate a little more bearable.

“For that they receive our thanks and this well-deserved recognition.”

Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox. cabinet member for community and leisure, congratulated all those honoured and said: “This year more than ever has shown the importance of community spirit.

“We have witnessed it in abundance over the last few months and all those nominated for our Community Awards and Pandemic Hero Awards deserve our thanks for their incredible efforts.

“Days like today make me proud to call Gravesham my home.”

The Pandemic Hero Awards were organised in conjunction with Gravesham Trophy Centre.

Read more: All the latest news from Gravesham

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