Let’s start with a good news story. Activity packs landed on the doorsteps of over a hundred Tees Valley families, to keep children entertained and educated over the summer holidays. The project helped children with additional needs, who find it difficult or impossible to access organised schemes because of illness or disability affecting themselves or another family member.

Over the course of the holidays, each child recieved up to five packs covering different themes. The packs were put together by Pip Donegan, who writes her own blog as Pip – Disabled Mum. She’s at the heart of a network of families affected by illness and long term disabilities, so she knows exactly what’s relevant. There was even flexibility to vary the contents of each pack to suit individual needs. Pip had distributed Easter Activity Packs in Middlesbrough earlier this year, and had started collecting donations to do something similar over the summer. Then her ideas grew more ambitious and she talked to other trustees of Teesside Community Action Group (TCAG), a small charity she became involved with during the first Covid lockdown.

As Pip explains, “Our children and families with disabilities have been through so much, shielding, delayed surgery, less (or no) respite care, shortage of carers, hospital appointments being postponed for up to twelve months and many face to face support groups having been closed since March 2020.

“Some children are grieving the loss of a parent, a few children have had surgery postponed numerous times, ending up in A&E frequently due to pain. Other families are struggling with mental health, there are so many families struggling in our community. I just feel so privileged and thankful to be in a position where I can make up these activity packs and see all the brave and courageous children smiling when they open them.”

TCAG loved Pip’s vision, especially the fact that it sprang from her first hand knowledge of shared needs and experiences of the community built around her blog. TCAG offered to apply for grants and manage the project’s finances. The aspiration was to reach a hundred families across the whole Tees Valley, with five packs each, at an average cost, including delivery, of ten pounds per pack. Pip identified themes for each pack: crafts, gardening, sports and being active, life skills learning and healthy eating.

Pip and TCAG appealed for donations, and a few generous individuals started to contribute. News came that an application to the Tees Valley Community Foundation was successful, and they handed TCAG £1000, donated by windfarm operators Sofia. This was specifically to be spent in targeted areas in and around Redcar. Pip and TCAG were happy to work with that and stepped up their planning, while continuing to look for a way to broaden the project’s reach.

That’s when Catherine Chapman, a branch manager at Darlington Building Society Guisborough, saw one of TCAG’s Facebook posts about the scheme. Catherine thought that this was exactly the kind of community initiative that should get backing from her Society’s 5% Pledge Fund. She approached TCAG and with a couple of colleagues, helped put together a bid that was quickly approved. This added another £2,000 to the funding pot. Around the same time, two other local groups also agreed to become involved. Teesside Family Foundation committed to paying for £1000 worth of supplies and Tees Valley Together volunteered to take on the provision and distribution of all the Healthy Eating packs.

This meant that the aspiration to help one hundred families could be met, and Pip (ably assisted by her 4-year-old son Harrison) moved into overdrive to get the first week’s packs sent out. As an expert with lived experience, she’d already found a source for ready boxed craft kits that could be sent out with a minimum of extra work. When these arrived at her home, she slapped on labels she’d printed and handed the whole lot over to a courier for delivery. The project was well and truly under way! Week two was Growing Food, and a lot more effort was needed to pack seeds, compost and plant pots into boxes. Pip was able to take a bit of a break when Tees Valley Together took charge of the Healthy Eating week, but was soon back to work sourcing and packing items for the Keeping Active and Life Skills boxes.

“Our communities have always had their share of good neighbours, people who are quick to spot when someone needs help and step in to lend a hand.”

This summer’s Activity Packs Scheme is just one example of the many projects that have been taking place in local communities. We could have looked at what Saltburn Community Response have been up to, or Dormanstown’s Ladies of Steel, Ubuntu in Middlesbrough, Darlington’s More in Common – there’s so much going on and we could make a very long list.

It’s something that’s hard to measure objectively, but it feels like there’s been an upsurge in this kind of community-based, community-led activity. While big organisations still have a role to play, with many national charities making an effort to reach out on a local level and listen to what their service users need, the role of smaller groups seems to be expanding. It could be that people have less trust in the establishment in any shape or form, and that we’re seeing this feed into a changing approach to giving and receiving support. There’s a general disaffection with party politics that could be leading to more campaigning energy being put to use in a hands on way; maybe more people are following the maxim “be the change you want to see happen”, as articulated by Arleen Lorrance.

Our communities have always had their share of good neighbours, people who are quick to spot when someone needs help and step in to lend a hand. They often do this on a personalised one to one basis, without involving others and with a minimum of fuss. Maybe ‘good neighbours’ have become more confident and active. We can also see the influence of the mutual aid movement, evidenced by marginalised communities forming groups to address the issues that affect them most directly, for example combating racism, defending each other against sexual violence, or ensuring that everyone in their neighbourhood has access to healthy food.

Early in 2020, when Covid spread rapidly in the UK, our everyday lives changed dramatically. Shopping became a challenge, family and friends were unable to meet, vulnerable people were left without support. Official services and established charities were overwhelmed. Individuals who wanted to help soon formed networks within their local communities, sometimes starting from scratch or sometimes building on existing faith organisations, foodbanks and other groups. Many of these networks took on at least some of the characteristics of mutual aid groups. They may not have ticked all the political boxes expected by purists in the mutual aid movement – such as overt rejection of hierarchies and active challenges to privilege – but they were embedded in their communities and there was little distinction between givers and receivers, everyone could offer help and everyone could benefit from it.

At the same time, wider use of social media has enabled groups and individuals to communicate more readily, to unite around common goals and beliefs, highlight needs, generate solutions and organise their response. Many of the networks that evolved during the pandemic have taken on a longer term role in their communities, applying their empathy and energy to wider issues.

Are we seeing a permanent shift in how help reaches the individuals who need it most, and the ways people work to improve the lives of those around them? Are we finally realising that the best community support does indeed come from within communities?