Published: 06:00, 22 October 2020
| Updated: 08:55, 26 October 2020
Caring people who found different ways to help as the coronavirus changed lives have been honoured - from a head teacher who covered himself in toilet roll, to a taxi firm who redeployed drivers to give free journeys to nurses and doctors.
Winners of the first Compassionate Community Awards, to find pandemic heroes, were announced last week at a Covid-safe ceremony at Maidstone Town Hall.
Run by the Heart of Kent Hospice, in collaboration with Maidstone Borough Council and the Kent Messenger, 63 people submitted nominations for a range of different categories.
Proving humour can go hand-in-hand with serious work was the winner of Compassionate Teacher/School - Palace Wood primary head teacher Mark Chatley.
While juggling last-minute advice from the Department for Education, he filmed videos to keep families informed of everything happening in the school. He also set up a food bank.
But his nominees couldn’t help mentioning the #Chatleychallenge, which took Twitter by storm and involved such feats as eating jelly with no hands, getting wrapped in toilet roll, apple bobbing and a series of physical challenges. Many included his wife and two sons.
Mr Chatley, who estimates doing around 75 of the challenges, said: “This award is really for the whole school team, who worked a ridiculous amount of hours to keep people informed and re-open the school. You can’t do something like this in isolation.
“The biggest challenge was responding to the education advice, which often came in late. No one expects someone to step in with all the answers, so we felt the most important thing was to communicate with parents and families and keep them up to date.
“The Chatley challenges were just something light-hearted and silly that we hoped people could embrace and get energised with at home.”
One of his nominees said when Mr Chatley wasn’t entertaining people, he helped her ‘out of a massive panic attack’ by reassuring her whatever decision she made about sending her son back would be the right one, and described him as ‘generally fabulous.’
With travel and leisure severely curtailed by lockdown, Express Cabs, based at Maidstone West station was one of many businesses fearing for survival.
However managers looked to find ways of helping those on the front line and people worried about getting their regular prescriptions. A 10-15% keyworker discount on cab rides turned into free journeys for healthcare workers in April when the firm set up a Go Fund Me page. Around £1,500 was raised and 203 free rides given out.
The firm also ferried food and medication to elderly customers who were shielding and set up a free emergency care line for customers in desperate situations. It continues to offer an NHS discount now. Drivers who didn’t have any fares often answered phones and were still paid. Those still on the road were provided with PPE. Their efforts won the firm Compassionate Business.
Jason Brown, operations manager said: “Lockdown was worrying for us, we saw a 15% decline in revenue. But we’ve been here for 27 years and we thought it was time to give something back to customers and our staff.”
The winner of Compassionate Young Person is 17-year-old Thomas Elphick, from Boughton Monchelsea.
When he heard of Boughton Monchelsea Parish Council’s initiative called Sunshine Sundays to arrange deliveries for vulnerable people having to shield, he got to work baking.
The Cornwallis Academy sixth former would bake every Saturday.
He said: “I think it was important to put something like a cake or biscuit in every parcel as this just gave a boost to people receiving it. The peak time was Easter where I think around 400 biscuits were made by volunteers.”
When it came to giving the accolade for a Compassionate Community, the judging panel faced a tough decision, with several villages and residents’ associations being nominated.
So two awards were made: Yalding Community Volunteers and the Virus Volunteers, who covered Coxheath, East Farleigh and other villages, took the trophies.
Yalding was praised for quickly setting up teams and dividing up work into shopping for the vulnerable, sorting prescription drop-offs, phoning isolated people and manning a food bank.
Its nominee said: “Everything was done with a smile while ensuring all health and safety guidelines were followed. They helped take the worry away.
Paul Mahoney, who attended the presentation ceremony on behalf of all volunteers, said: “There is already lots of good work in the village, but when the effects of coronavirus became clear, it became obvious that organisation would be needed to marshal resources. It felt great, I felt privileged to do the work and people just hunkered down and worked through what needed to be done.”
Similarly in Coxheath, the virus volunteers formed to check on the safety and welfare of people in Coxheath and surrounding villages. Nominees praised the work of Philippa Webb and Sandra Hobbs in particular for delivering thousands of care packages and for liaising with doctors surgeries and running prescriptions to those who could not get out. Ms Webb made prescription drop offs at all times of day and night.
The virus volunteers created 1,800 leaflets which were delivered around the villages, so residents and teams at shops and GP surgeries knew about its work.
Sandra Hobbs, who collected the award, said: “I’d like to find a public place for the trophy. There was always someone there to help and all volunteers should be extremely proud of themselves.”
When coronavirus forced residents in her care home to stay in their rooms, in isolation, it broke the heart of manager Karen Burrows.
Her ethos is to give people as full a life as possible, with a wide variety of activities. Family visits were, of course, encouraged.
She was horrified to see people she cared for becoming depressed and deteriorating due to the restrictions.
The way she and her staff stepped in to try and keep families connected has resulted in Loose Court Care Home winning the Compassionate Community Award for a care home.
In a moving nomination one woman wrote about the support given to her mum with dementia and praising another worker, called Vera.
The nominee explained her mum was deteriorating in lockdown, but said staff video called and arranged a call shortly before she passed away.
Staff stayed at her side all night, then set a slideshow of pictures of her mother to music and even attended their former resident’s funeral.
Mrs Burrows said that had not been the only struggle. She added: “We sadly had Covid in the home. There were five people who tested positive. We were able to get three back, but we sadly lost two people.
“We’ve always said no-one must pass away on their own, even if that means bringing in extra staff.
“It has felt at times like the struggles of the care sector were forgotten. However, we had wonderful support from clinical care and district nurses.
“We worked out we had to find new ways of keeping people in touch and this award is really for a team effort. I am so proud of everyone here.”
An Ipad was bought and staff at the Rushmead Drive home harnessed Facebook for regular updates so people could see their loved-ones.
The winner of Compassionate Neighbour/Volunteer is Reshmi Kalam, from Maidstone. Her aim was to help anyone, regardless of what the task was.
This approach has seen her raise money to buy and donate food to hospital workers and buy fabrics so groups could make scrubs for NHS workers. She also made Easter treats for anyone who asked - including residential homes.
Reshmi also understood the mental health impacts lockdown was having and also gave up her time to sit and talk with those who were struggling.
She is now conducting home and online tutoring for children.
Her nominee wrote: “I imagine she was juggling all of it.”
Reshmi said it was caring for her 85-year-old neighbour for five years which alerted her to just what would be needed as coronavirus restrictions were imposed.
She said: “I just knew from caring for him how bad things could get. But in doing the work, I honestly enjoyed all of it and never felt I needed to take time out away from it. I found at first people might be a little suspicious of someone turning up with a basket of food, but gradually they would open up about how they were feeling.”
The Compassionate Community Awards are the first step in getting recognition for the borough to be designated ‘Compassionate Maidstone.’
This looks to find places supporting and celebrating care during life’s most testing moments. While this ambition is on hold, the Heart of Kent Hospice and Maidstone council changed focus slightly this year to honour those who had become unsung pandemic heroes, supported by the KM -the awards media partner.
Sarah Pugh, chief executive at the Heart of Kent Hospice, said: “Covid-19 brought up all the elements we were wanting to talk about with ‘Compassionate Maidstone’ so the awards seemed like a great opportunity to start it all.”
Judges were: Mrs Pugh, Alison Broom, chief executive of Maidstone Borough Council, Lady Colgrain, Lord Lieutenant of Kent and Mary Graham, Kent Messenger news editor.