Published: 11:20, 06 April 2021
| Updated: 11:23, 06 April 2021
They will perhaps become some of the most enduring images of the whole pandemic, like the firefighters battling the blazes of the Blitz – the moments of true community spirit shining through in the darkest of days.
Trays and trays of curries and pizzas, boxes upon boxes of donations and pick-me-ups to the wealth of people working the hardest they ever have to see us through the worst of times most of us will ever experience.
When the country entered the first lockdown a year ago, the response to help support and give a boost to the NHS and the hospital staff was overwhelming.
There wasn't an hour when the KM's newsdesks around the county weren't being told of the next donation rolling its way in through the doors of one of the county's hospitals.
Even now, there's not a day when a new donation is not thanked by the teams at any of our hospitals as just a quick glance at any of their Facebook feeds shows.
And that was just scratching the surface of the thousands upon thousands of items – from pizzas to hand creams, to curries and cards – which have been donated to NHS staff in the past 12 months.
"It's been unquantifiable," says Donna Law, charity and fundraising manager for the Medway Hospital Charity, which in any normal year helps raise money for the hospital, staff and patients to support projects which fall outside the regular NHS budgets.
"Ordinarily we work with our community and corporate donors and put on fundraising events here at the hospital.
"Covid completely changed that and all face to face fundraising ceased and we had to adapt.
"But what has happened in its stead has been an overwhelmingly positive response from our community either in raising money for us or donating items.
"The donations just kept rolling in and it's happened in two phases with the wave one lockdown and then the wave two lockdown it kicked in again."
Donna and the charity's fundraising officer, Cheryl Jones, estimate they've walked hundreds of miles around the hospital taking in donations, finding somewhere to put them and working with colleagues across the hospital to distribute items to the right place.
The operation – replicated in hospitals around Kent – has seen deliveries taken to staff and wards both day and night to ensure nobody is missed out.
"It's kept us going, it's as simple as that," says Leslieann Osborn, director of wellbeing at Darent Valley Hospital for the Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust.
"It was a massive morale boost knowing how much our community cares about us, and we’ve all felt very humbled by their generosity.
"It also in turn improved patient care – when staff are exhausted, being able to quickly access a bottle of water or something to eat refreshes and energises them and helps them to carry on.
"Knowing the public are behind them has been really motivating."
Across the county, at least 25,000 hot meals have been delivered to hospitals including curries, pizzas, Chinese, roast dinners from community groups, restaurants and takeaways which were closed during the lockdown.
But it wasn't just the donations of foods and toiletries that have served as a reminder of how well regarded and supported the hospital teams have been.
Stacks of cards, drawings, pictures and messages have flooded in which have been displayed in prominent places around the hospital as symbols of thanks and morale boosts during the tough days.
"It was a massive morale boost knowing how much our community cares about us, and we’ve all felt very humbled by their generosity..."
And across the county, the affectionately known "scrubbers" popped up in communities making medical scrubs in an array of colours and designs to help bring some brightness and help to NHS workers.
Leslieann says the first few weeks of the lockdown – announced by Boris Johnson to the nation on March 23 – saw a huge influx of support.
"You could tell that people at home really wanted to do whatever they could to help, which was wonderful.
"We were able to make up wellbeing bags from all the smaller donations of snacks and toiletries. It shows whatever contribution you can make – big or small – it really does make a difference.
"Our message is simple, thank you for helping us to help you – you are our heroes and no, we could not have imagined anything like this – it has been overwhelming at times but has brought joy in to our hearts in the hardest of times."
The co-ordinated efforts of the community groups have been paramount and evident since day one with volunteers at the heart of the effort.
Among those are members of the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Gravesend who have delivered meals to the hospital since last March but also helped support vulnerable members of the community throughout the pandemic.
General secretary Jagdev Singh Virdee said: "A basic principle of Sikhism is "Sarbat da Bhalla", which means "for the benefit of all mankind". Bearing this in mind, we always aim to support those in need. We normally serve Langar at the Gurdwara every day, from 6am until late evening, and everyone is welcome.
"For some, the only hot meal they get during a day may be at the Gurdwara.
"When we went into lockdown, our first thought was on how we can continue to provide Langar to those who need it, and hence started the Langar Delivery Service for vulnerable persons.
"This was then extended to staff working long hours in NHS hospitals, nursing homes and the local Hospice.
"Over 64,000 meals were delivered during the first lockdown, and probable around another 25,000 in the current lockdown, including to the lorry drivers who were stuck at Dover over Christmas."
"Staff at Darent Valley Hospital and at other establishments have been working so hard to look after those who have suffered from Covid-19, in addition to the normal workloads that they have. we have seen them exhausted after long shifts.
"Providing food for them to eat during their breaks meant that it was one thing less for them to worry about, knowing that a meal was there when they needed it, when they could take a break.
"We also helped with 350 sets of scrubs for staff, when the hospital was having difficulty sourcing them.
"The Gurdwara President, Manpreet Singh Dhaliwal's wife Sandeep is a doctor at the hospital and she mentioned the shortage of scrubs at home, which alerted us to the need.
"Volunteers sourced the material in the Far East and imported it, found a factory in Leicester to sew the scrubs, and they were delivered to the hospital within about two weeks."
At Kent’s largest hospital trust, East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust – which runs the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent and Canterbury and Queen Elizabeth Queen Mother in Margate, along with Buckland Hospital in Dover and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Folkestone – some 300 individual donations have been made and more than £253,000 donated by the community to help purchase items for staff and the hospital.
Senior charity officer Dee Neligan said: “We are so grateful to all those who have supported East Kent Hospitals Charity during the past year.
“We understand that so many fundraisers have resulted from a personal story or connection to the local hospitals, which have made each and every donation so much more poignant.
“All donations have enabled us to support EKHUFT and 2gether Support Solutions staff, at a time of unprecedented demand; which has made an incredible and significant impact on staff and patients across all five sites.”
The focus on supporting NHS through the pandemic kickstarted by the community through the donation drive is now switching to attention to how trusts can better look after the wellbeing of their staff.
Leslieann says her team at Darent Valley, which was established due to the overwhelming response, is now focussing on how treating the mental and emotional health of the trust's workforce.
"Caring for those who care for others is now a national priority which is excellent but this is a long term need, especially the mental health support as staff have been through a tremendous amount, some very traumatic and for some they will need support as they reflect and come to terms with the past year.
"There was a need to respond to the many enquiries about donations and ensuring they were fairly distributed, this indeed was an early part of what the Wellbeing Team did, now it’s very much more as we look to what future provision is needed to support the holistic wellbeing of our staff."
Financial donations from a £20 cheque to thousands of pounds have been extremely valuable for the hospital trusts in funding purchases which also help patients.
In Medway, a Covid lung simulator proved to be a prudent purchase to help staff train before the second wave.
Donna says she cannot imagine what frontline colleagues have witnessed or experienced this year but believes the year of Covid lockdowns has really and truly made people thankful for the NHS and realised how important an institution it is for all our communities.
"It's been unprecedented and they work so hard and deserve every bit of credit. But there's a whole swathe of people still working and would be nice to recognise them.
"That's what we try to do through the donations. If someone says they want something donated to ICU or a Covid ward then we do that but what we've been very proactive is supporting everybody.
"If you need a moment to know you've done a good job you've got that evidence the community is thinking about you..."
"That's really important because everyone needs to know they matter.
"When donations come into the charity we get them out as far and as wide as we can to say thank you.
"I think people recognise a hospital is run by a lot of people and you need a lot of people for it to run smoothly and efficiently – porters, cleaners, housekeeping, medical, communications to charity team.
"We're one big family and trying to look out for each other.
"What I have to say on behalf of our hospital is thank you to everyone who's co-ordinated it or whose idea it was. They start putting it on their Facebook or work Facebook and the stuff just comes in and it's incredible.
"We appreciate people are thinking of us as much as the items they give us because we know they can't physically but they've sent us a picture or a thank you card.
"Our children's ward had lots of pictures of rainbows up and we put a board up in our main reception with cards and thank you letters for staff to read.
"If you need a moment to know you've done a good job you've got that evidence the community is thinking about you.
"You often hear about the bad stuff but it enabled people to say well done let them know that."
Miles Scott, chief executive of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, said: “Since the start of the pandemic the communities’ support and generosity towards the Trust and its staff has been incredible.
“We have been inundated with kind donations - from food deliveries to glass artwork, knitted and plastic ear protectors to cakes, hand creams to special ‘thank you’ road markings at our hospital sites, and even balloon archways.
“Our thanks go to so many people and businesses – their kind gifts and messages have really helped to lift staff spirits throughout the last year.”