Back in the late 90s, some residents had got together amid concerns that sewage from another area was running down into a burn that passes alongside the estate close to where children would play. They had approached the Council and when people saw the collective efforts of local people netting results the organisation evolved.
Back in 1998, that group of residents were operating from a three bedroomed Housing Executive house in the estate, but soon outgrew this and by 2009 the Housing Executive agreed to lease the group a block of four derelict flats in Sperrin Park. Caw & Nelson Drive Action Group, which operates in a neighbourhood renewal area, sourced the funding to renovate those buildings into the new, fully accessible community centre it operates from today. With more housing recently built in the area, C&NDAG now caters for residents across 800 homes in the area, and has a staff of six including two cooks, a community development officer, an administrator, a centre support attendant and a co-ordinator/ centre manager.
Linda Watson (inset)has been in that co-ordinator role with Caw & Nelson Drive Action Group for 15 years, and said the community spirit remains every bit as strong in the area today. “We have managed to build from a wee residents’ group who started it with an issue up to what we are today.”
In normal times, Caw & Nelson Drive Action Group’s base is a hive of activity with everything from NWRC and driving theory training to crochet, quilting and craft classes. Advice NI come in every week to do and there are also job clubs and a community computer suite. The Caw Pink Ladies would meet regularly, and other major programmes include the Older People’s Luncheon Club, which runs three days a week, and the Caw Careline, which sees staff contacting over 40 people each morning to check in, have a chat, and see how they are. “That is even more important now over the COVID era,” Linda said.
Pre-COVID, the luncheon club would see older residents gathering together for the lunch and to catch up with everyone, but Caw also delivered lunch to some who couldn’t attend. That service proved key over the past year and was expanded to include many of those who would normally attend in person but couldn’t because of the lockdowns and shielding. “Up until the end of February we had delivered 3,700 meals, and that’s to over 60 local people. A lot of those people would have come out to the dinners and the classes for the social element of it and I know a lot of them are missing that at the minute. We have started up some classes online, crafts and a book club, but most just wish they could get back together again. Some are a bit reluctant yet but hopefully with the vaccines and if things improve they will feel more able to.”
While the centre may be closed to the public for now, inside staff and the troop of local volunteers have been extremely busy. Linda said: “All during the lockdown, although the centre is closed to the public, we continued to man the centre, and during the time people were shielding we delivered 680 food boxes plus 208 food parcels up to the end of February, but we still haven’t counted in March yet. Our volunteers also did 620 grocery deliveries from the local shop and we gave out grocery vouchers as well for the local shop.
“The staff have been brilliant coming into work as normal, even though we have had to change everything we do to meet the needs of the community. And we couldn’t have done all the things we have done without the help of our 36 volunteers. They have been brilliant. We have also delivered over 250 activity and hygiene packs out to different age groups, and we gave hampers to a couple of the local homes, Ardlough Nursing Home and Seymour House and the Intensive Care Unit at Altnagelvin.”
C&NDAG also work in partnership with the DEEDS dementia group and usually host a group of people every week. “They and their families are really missing us,” Linda said. “When you think of people with dementia they don’t really understand everything that is going on, so our volunteers ring them every Thursday and they go out once a month and take them a hot meal and a wee gift just to keep that contact with them. They would have come here on a Thursday morning, a taxi would have brought them, and they would have taken part in a wee class and got something to eat for their lunch. It gave their family a wee bit of respite as well.”
Linda said mental health issues arising from the pandemic and the separation and isolation people are experiencing will be a major issue going forward for people of all ages across communities.
Like others in the north west, C&NDAG have been pivotal however in delivering some sense of normality during this past year and providing positive experiences and interactions which will translate into fond memories and moments that will live long with many.
Among those experiences have been the parades through the area, including bringing in the Kidz Farm, the superheroes and the Cinderella pantomime at Christmas time, all of which were outdoor and on the streets.
Gardening is hugely popular across the north west, and Caw and Nelson Drive residents are no exception. Recognising this, the community organisation enlisted the help of local expert Gareth Austin to deliver horticultural videos, while a fitness expert has been delivering online bums and tums chair aerobics. There has also been street zumba and JoJingles for pre-school children every Wednesday morning, which has been going really well online.
“At Hallowe’en Christmas we handed out arts and craft kits and again now at Easter, and we have wee prizes, for example we are doing an Easter Bonnet competition now.
“We have just been doing whatever we can try to do to keep the community spirit up a wee bit. We just hope that come September time we will be able to have people back into the centre.
“Everybody is trying to gel together and work together so we get through this and hoping against hope we get back to some sort of normality.”
Linda has nothing but praise for the local staff and volunteers and those working hard in the community and voluntary sector across the city. “Could you imagine if the community and voluntary sector had all just said we are closing the centres and locking the doors and we are all going home and furloughing staff? Nothing would have been out on the ground right across the community and voluntary sector.
“Across the city they came out and did everything they could do and I can’t find the words to express how proud I am to be part of the community and voluntary sector.”
She added that there has been great partnership working during Covid between the Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership and the community groups right across the Waterside, and also thanked C&NDAG’s funders for “allowing us to be so flexible to enable us meet the needs of the community during the last year”.
And the feedback from the local people in the community has been brilliant. “When we go to their door you just see the faces brightening up, especially the older people, and some of them have hardly been out the doors since lockdown began because of their health, and when we go round and give them the wee packs they are just so glad to see you and they are saying they can’t wait to get back to the centre and to see everybody.”
And C&NDAG staff and volunteers are thrilled about the prospect too and are already starting to prepare in hope of being able to reopen to the community by September if possible.
“We are resilient people in this city, we always seem to bounce back and take whatever comes up against us and try to work around it. Things are not going to be as normal, but they are going to be as normal as we can make them,” Linda vows.