Community in Focus: Hillcrest Trust - ‘Community groups, volunteers have been the boots on the ground’
It’s been a year like no other and Hillcrest Trust centre manager Claire McLaughlin said the way in which staff and volunteers in the Top of the Hill area have responded has been tremendous but also typical of local people.
Claire (inset below), has worked in the community and voluntary sector for the past decade, and for five years was voluntary director on the board of Hillcrest Trust. She was only in the job as centre manager a matter of months when COVID arrived.
Praising the swift actions of staff and volunteers, she said the pandemic response has highlighted and underlined the “indomitable spirit that exists in the Top Of The Hill”.
Speaking from the impressive new community centre on Trench Road, which staff moved into before Christmas, Claire said they are looking forward to everyone from across the community joining them when it is safe to do so.
Last year saw Hillcrest Trust reach another major milestone -its 40th anniversary.
The Trust started out as The Family Centre, a facility set up in Jasmine Court by the Good Shepherd Sisters, who undertook many years of preparatory work on the ground in conjunction with local residents and others to secure the new facility for local people. Community services were to evolve over the next few decades and six years ago, the two community development organisations in the area, Top of the Hill 2010 and Hillcrest House amalgamated to form Hillcrest Trust. “They came together to look a the physical and social regeneration of the Top Of The Hill area and we have really gone from strength to strength since then,” Claire said. “The big development has been the new community centre here, which has been campaigned for for 40 years and has been much needed in the area. Up until then, we had been working out of the premises in Jasmine Court and the Community Hub on Trench Road which was the old St Brecan’s School canteen. The new centre is finished, but ironically, when the community was so ready and eager to get in the doors, COVID hit us and we haven’t as yet been able to actually open.
“It’s a purpose built centre and it is right in the heart of the community and we see it very much as the heart of the community.”
Claire said the past year has affirmed just how true that is as Hillcrest Trust became the focal point and the leading organisation in the area in terms of the community emergency response to the pandemic.
LIGHT IN THE DARK
“The minute the pandemic began and we realised that things were not going to be the way they had been we moved immediately to a community emergency response and we were inundated with volunteers from the local community. Those people came forward week after week to deliver food parcels, medication, activity packs, along with our staff, within the local community. They did it week after week and put the good of their community before themselves and they wanted no recognition for themselves, because that is what people do in Top of The Hill, they look after their neighbours and that was really evident.”
Staff and the volunteers also supported residents in other areas of the Waterside which lacked same community infrastructure - people who may have otherwise missed out on what proved to be vital resources and lifelines for many vulnerable people. “Without the volunteers, the great work that took place here over the past year would have been impossible,” Claire said.
Pre-COVID, Hillcrest Trust was a hive of activity, offering services literally from ‘the cradle to the grave’. Projects in normal times include programmes for newborn babies and toddlers and others for children of all ages, exercise programmes, yoga, The Men’s Shed, the Recycled Teenagers Women’s Group who meet weekly for bingo and socialising. There is also Welfare Advice services, art classes, community education classes and a host of other weekly events and services.
“For the first few months of the pandemic it just became emergency response,” Claire recalls. “We are very proud to say there wasn’t one day throughout the pandemic that we didn’t have a member of staff in the office responding to phonecalls from the community. We felt it was key to keep our lights on so people knew we were here and that there was help there at the end of the phone.”
As well as the community response deliveries, Hillcrest Trust also delivered a Befriending Call Service linking in with older people in the community, particularly those who may have had limited or no family support, to ensure they had what they needed or just for a friendly chat. As time went on, the use of social media and Zoom increased and Hillcrest Trust staff and users were able to move some services online. One of the big hits has been online bingo for older people, which started in April 2020 and has been going every week since. It has been a great way for our older women’s group to connect in with each other. We have over 20 of them every single week playing the bingo and then they can stay on and chat to each other then,” Clare said, adding:
“Some of the other digital programmes have included storytelling groups for children. At night in a private Facebook group you can log on and we had some fantastic story tellers at different times of the year. On St Patrick’s Day we had our storyteller Niamh telling the story of the Children of Lir.
“We have delivered Mindfulness through Zoom, and we have had great success with cooking programmes - we are running one at the minute that uses Slow Cooker recipes, and with things like baking competitions. These have been a real success with people of all ages.”
On Easter Saturday there will also be a Zoom Dance. Staff will be delivering a meal to older people in the community in the evening and for those that can link on through Zoom, there will be live music. “We tried this at Christmas and it was a great success and people loved having the opportunity to feel like they were eating together. A lot of these people are continuing to shield.”
Outdoor events have also proved a big hit, including bringing in Blue Eagle Productions to deliver their on-street pantomime Cinderella at Christmas and a tour with Santa for children.
As part of the Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership, Hillcrest Trust has been working closely with other community organisations across the Waterside, including those in the Irish Street, Caw & Nelson Drive, Lincoln Courts and Drumahoe areas. “We all worked as one collective during COVID and it really forged closer links. Although we were all working together through the Partnership, you really saw over this past year how that partnership work has really stood to us, and it has improved and deepend over the last year. This was a common threat to all of us and people came together to ensure all our communities were well looked after,” Claire said.
Paying tribute to staff at Hillcrest Trust, Claire added: “Our jobs all changed but that didn’t stop the staff stepping up to what needed to be done and to do the best for the community they serve. It was inspiring people did that and continue to do that. The community and voluntary sector, we think on our feet, and we respond to what the community tells us what they need and what they want.
“We’re very lucky our funders have supported us so well over the past year, particularly our core funders - the Department for Communities and Derry City & Strabane District Council.”
Partnership work across the traditional community divides is something community groups in the Waterside have been leading on for many years, and Hillcrest Trust has also worked with local schools and the Waterside Health Centre. “It really was a collective effort, but there can be no doubt that it was the community groups and the volunteers who were the boots on the street.
“I think that is indicative of the Community and Voluntary sector across Derry at this time, we have all been very innovative in engaging with our communities, keeping those communities together.”
The Top Of The Hill is an especially close community, but COVID has highlighted the generosity of its residents who organised fundraiser such as Bonus Ball competitions and Street Bingo and donated the proceeds to the COVID emergency response. There were also private donations from local people to ensure those less well off were looked after. Some local people too have also been highlighting and identifying neighbours who might need some help and support.
Hillcrest also became a type of community information service and provided a printing service which has been useful for people applying for jobs, students who had returned home and families.
“We have also been so spoiled too because the residents have been so good to us,” Claire said. “The amount of cakes, home baking, boxes of sweets... we have a few bakers so we were getting fresh baked cakes and scones. It’s just testament to the people in the Top Of The Hill. Even when we were making the phonecalls and asking people how they were, they’d say...’well I’m grand, and how are you?’ It has meant a lot to us, it really has.”
Looking forward, Clare said the staff at the new centre are “raring to go” when the situation improves. “We cannot wait to get the centre up and running and for people to come in and see the building and enjoy all the services and programmes that we intend to deliver.
“We can’t wait to welcome people into this building that the community has waited so long for. This is for the Top Of the Hill community and the sooner we can get them in to enjoy it and embrace it, the better.”