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West Kent Befriending Service team in Maidstone saved from redundancy by Inspired Villages

By Luke May

A scheme which helps to tackle loneliness among the elderly and vulnerable has been saved from closure at the eleventh hour.

There were fears West Kent Befriending Service would be axed after its only two paid members of staff were told they faced redundancy by Age UK Maidstone in April.

But now a company behind several retirement villages has stepped in and agreed to fund the service for the next year.

Jamie Bunce from Inspired Villages, West Kent Befriending Service manager Wendy Pfeiffer (left) and Age UK Maidstone CEO Louise MacPherson (13587171)
Jamie Bunce from Inspired Villages, West Kent Befriending Service manager Wendy Pfeiffer (left) and Age UK Maidstone CEO Louise MacPherson (13587171)

Service manager Wendy Pfeiffer said: “We feel like a huge weight has suddenly been lifted off our shoulders.

“For the first time in a long while we can really look forward instead of continually fighting to save the service.”

West Kent Befriending Service has volunteers visiting 175 older people within Maidstone and the surrounding villages.

A lack of funding and a swell in referrals last summer saw Ms Pfeiffer raise money for a second member of staff to enable the service to cope with demand.

West Kent Befriending Service coffee morning at Harpers Coffee and Gifts, Maidstone. Ann Rhodes, Lorraine Smith-Lowther, Eric Roberts, Sue Miles, Beryl Sutton, Diane Bromley and Wendy Pfeiffer of West Kent Befriending Service, Iris Sheppard and Hilary Juhasz. Picture: Matthew Walker. (13546010)
West Kent Befriending Service coffee morning at Harpers Coffee and Gifts, Maidstone. Ann Rhodes, Lorraine Smith-Lowther, Eric Roberts, Sue Miles, Beryl Sutton, Diane Bromley and Wendy Pfeiffer of West Kent Befriending Service, Iris Sheppard and Hilary Juhasz. Picture: Matthew Walker. (13546010)

Her campaign was successful and Dianne Bromley was welcomed to the team.

But in April the pair were told they faced redundancy from Age UK Maidstone, which is responsible for the befriending service.

The charity insisted the service would remain open if the jobs were cut, but questions were raised over how it could run without its two key staff members.

Redundancy meetings were in progress when Inspired Villages, the firm behind the Ledian Gardens retirement development in Leeds, stepped in.

Diane Bromley and Wendy Pfeiffer of West Kent Befriending Service with their birthday cake. Picture: Matthew Walker
Diane Bromley and Wendy Pfeiffer of West Kent Befriending Service with their birthday cake. Picture: Matthew Walker

Chief executive Jamie Bunce said: “Health and wellbeing play an integral part in our villages; research has shown that people who socialise and keep active live longer, more fulfilling lives and this is something we are keen to encourage.

“Having seen first-hand the invaluable work that the West Kent Befriending Service does and the impact it has upon the people that it serves, rescuing this service was, for us, an absolute ‘no brainer.’”

As well as providing a volunteer visiting scheme for people in their own homes, West Kent Befriending Service runs a monthly ‘talking bus’, supported by transport operator Arriva, and two monthly coffee mornings in Maidstone - at Caremark in County Road and Harper’s in Market Buildings.

The latter was set up in partnership with café owners Claudine and Nick Bedford, and celebrated its first anniversary on Monday.

Wendy said: “The befriending service has grown beyond belief – and we receive referrals on a daily basis, so we are always looking for more volunteers.

“We carefully match our volunteers to members, to make sure they will get on and form a friendship that works on both sides. The testimonials we receive from our members would bring a tear to your eye.

“Inspired Villages and Mr Bunce have really proved to be our ‘knights in shining armour.’ Without them, the future for all our lovely, older members was looking very bleak indeed.”

Ms Pfeiffer added: “The service is so grateful to Nick and Claudine, the coffee morning is so popular with our members. It’s grown and grown over the past 12 months.”

The anniversary was fittingly marked with coffee and cake.

Read more: For all the latest news around Maidstone.

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