The Neighbourhood Care Network was established in March 2020 as a community driven crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with support from Bellingen Shire Council and numerous volunteers. The idea came from the Housing Matters Action Group who were closely monitoring the internationally unfolding pandemic and looked for ways that local communities were responding overseas. Rose West, one of the group's members came across the work of Neighbourhood Mutual Aid in the UK, which inspired the NCN model. Following the terrible 2019 bushfires the housing group realised that local communities across the Shire needed to get ready for the pandemic. The group believed that if the pandemic hit, residents would need to be as well positioned as possible to look out for each other right across the Shire.
Early in March the local GPs took the initiative to establish the COVID testing clinic, which showed great foresight. The clinic was set up in premises owned by the Royal Freemasons Benevolent Institution. At this time the housing group approached Bellingen Shire Council to collaborate and were immediately invited into the Pandemic Response Group, which Council were setting up to drive a cross sector local response. The Bellingen Neighbourhood Centre (now Neighbourhood Centres of Bellingen Shire) were also involved and they took the lead to coordinate effort across the non government services in the area.
The NCN was established from 20 to 22 March 2020 by a small group of people: Kerry Pearse, Rose West, Gai Stern and Liz Hull, who worked day and night through the weekend, with Clare Danby joining the team shortly after. Bellingen Shire Council resourced the initial set up period, which was greatly appreciated. Ian Gilmore from InfoBounce was quickly roped in to work through the night establishing an online membership management system based on the system already partly developed by the Pandemic Response Group.
Bellingen Council also made some staff who had to stand down from their regular jobs available to help with the set up in the following weeks. (Thanks Jill Haynes and Alison Pope). We also put a call out to community members to join the central team as volunteers to help us establish neighbourhood networks as quickly as we could across the Shire. (Thanks Jo Brotherton, Jeannie Veitch, Krista Nolan, Dianne Adams, Carole Sampson, Toni Wright-Turner, Jane Grant and Tyler Parkes). Kerry and Clare developed basic documentation on the run and we blitzed the region with social media (thanks Andrew Woodward).
Bellingen Shire Connections Centre
During the next week the NCN team were invited to set up shop in the Bellingen Youth Hub, which had to close its doors to young people in the early stages of the pandemic due to the stay at home restrictions. A few days later and again over a weekend, Bellingen Council established the Bellingen Shire Connections Centre at the Youth Hub under Dean Besley's leadership with Lily Isobella's ongoing active involvement, as a central point of contact for residents as the pandemic unfolded. This included establishing a website (thanks to Fiona Morgan and Liz Hull) as a central point of truth and repository of useful information and a telephone call centre. Michelle McFadyen, Bellingen Shire Council Deputy General Manager provided leadership from the Council administration and was able to push through systems and processes to get things done quickly in response to the escalating potential crisis. All with the strong support of the Councillors and General Manager. It's amazing what can happen when people work together with a common goal and shared values.
This period was dynamic and just a little bit chaotic. There was a real buzz as a random group of people were thrown together to develop a whole of community response as well as we could. Council staff, local GPs, people from the Bellingen and Urunga Chambers of Commerce as well as local community volunteers all worked together, crossing agency boundaries and smashing silos, to come together to develop a tailored response for the communities across the Bellingen Shire in record time.
Meanwhile in the NCN
Over this period volunteers from the NCN across the Shire mobilised to do leaflet drops and make contact with neighbours just as the first round of restrictions were being announced. There was no time for graphic design and fancy leaflets.
This is an example of the leaflet our Coordinators hand delivered across the Shire.
In the space of around ten days there were over 50 local neighbourhood groups and around 557 registered participants covering around 80% of the area of the Bellingen Shire .
This was a remarkable achievement under very difficult circumstances.
Businesses were also encouraged to register through the network. Their registrations were passed on to the Chambers of Commerce who then worked with Council to provide information and support to local businesses. The Business Support Centre was set up temporarily in the Bellingen Tourist Information Centre.
Coordinators mobilised their local groups with the support of the central NCN team, and gave and received practical help locally. As it turned out there were many more people who put their hands up to help than who needed help. At the time we didn't know how the pandemic would unfold and it could easily have gone a different way. The NCN also set up some central activities like coordinating a delivery service for people who had to self isolate and stay at home during the early restrictions. It turned out that delivering library books was one of the most popular activities.
We also tried to communicate with people across the Shire to let them know what was happening and encourage their involvement. Here is a link to a newsletter which local Coordinators distributed across their areas. Click here for newsletter
The NCN Team also developed documentation to help define the Coordinators' role and provide some central support to help people reach out to their neighbours. Click here for Coordinator Roles and Responsibilities
We were so grateful to find MessageMedia, an Australian SMS provider who reached out to provide free support to not for profits responding to the COVID pandemic. They came along at just the right time and and helped us communicate with our members by SMS. We are so grateful to them for their ongoing sponsorship of the NCN. We simply couldn't do it without them.
To check out MessageMedia click here
MessageMedia have published a case study on the early days of the NCN and the power of SMS. Click here
Network Snapshot April 2020
Of the 557 network participants there were:
- 123 people over 70 years of age who live alone
- 49 people with a disability
- 38 people who are carers of people with a disability
- 40 people who are caring for seniors
- 168 people who are caring for children
Locals with the right expertise (thanks Dean Beasley and Paul Tipper) helped us quickly set up as an incorporated association which meant that our volunteers could be covered by insurance - and the Neighbourhood Care Network Inc was born on 23 April 2020. To read our Constitution click here
The NCN worked very closely with the Pandemic Response Group and was a central part of the Bellingen Shire Connections Centre established by the Council to provide a one stop point of contact and support for residents as the pandemic developed. We also worked closely with the Youth Hub, the Neighbourhood Centre and other residents' groups already established across the Shire. We couldn't have been effective in isolation and were very much a part of a bigger team.
By May 2020 it became clear that the measures in place had contained the pandemic and the need to activate the local neighbourhood groups was diminishing. An interim steering committee of coordinators from the network was formed. They consulted widely across the network to invite people's views about what had been achieved over this short period and if the NCN should continue. Lauren English from Charles Sturt University analysed the consultation data and wrote the report. To read the consultation report click here
Transition Project - March to 31 December 2021
A very small group of committed coordinators and original founders kept things inching forward and started applying for funding to help us gear up for the long haul. Fast forward to early 2021 and we were thrilled to receive transition funding from Bellingen Shire Council and Healthy North Coast. For more information about our funders click here
By then the NCN had been dormant for at least six months. We had set up under such pressure that the back of house administration really only suited a one off emergency response and wasn't suitable for an ongoing network. The transition funding and significant pro bono contributions have enabled us to set up solid membership management systems and communication arrangements to support the network into the future.
We are excited to be reactivating the network and helping people across the Bellingen Shire and surrounding areas to be connected and stay safe. We are focussing on disaster preparedness and neighbours helping neighbours through all sorts of challenges as well as COVID. We are working closely with key agencies such as Bellingen Shire Council, emergency services, the Neighbourhood Centres of Bellingen Shire Inc, St Vincent de Paul, Lifeline and the Red Cross. We are proud to build on our ethos of neighbours helping neighbours during hard times.
This chronology was written by Kerry Pearse, Chairperson of the Neighbourhood Care Network Inc. It is based on memory - which believe me is high risk - and the NCN files. Any errors are unintended and the author's responsibility. Please email us at [email protected] if you would like to add to this history.