Lewisham Hospital staff
The Help Lewisham Hospital team see 200 NHS workers each day

Volunteers have stepped up to create a vital support group serving up to 200 exhausted NHS workers from Lewisham Hospital each day.

Laurence Smith, a 34-year-old cycle courier, and Julie Commons, a childminder who has lived in the area for decades, have been quick to establish what is now a huge and vital resource for workers from the hospital.

Help Lewisham Hospital has been inundated with donations from the public and from small, local businesses as well as huge, international companies.

Working out of a busy distribution centre at the Point, a community centre across the road, and with Lewisham Council offering Place Ladywell as another location to help organise resources, Help Lewisham Hospital has quickly grown into a hugely important lifeline – all thanks to volunteers.

Smith said: “It’s been a challenge – my God, it has grown quickly.”

The group now has dedicated volunteers running social media pages as well as volunteer drivers and organisers.

The network, which provides a lifeline for both NHS workers and vulnerable families in Lewisham, sources and distribute food and essentials from a focal hub at the Point, with plans emerging to set up a home delivery service as well.

The effort has snowballed rapidly – with huge amounts of food going to other aid groups as well.

“It looks slick but beneath the water we are paddling furiously to keep up with it. It’s been going really really well,” Smith said.

‘We’ve had support from everywhere’

Help Lewisham Hospital volunteers packing food
Laurence Smith (right), Julie Commons (second right) and fellow volunteers

“We shifted 30 tonnes of food in the last three weeks that would have been disposed of otherwise. We have had amazing support from all businesses, from very small ones all the way up to ones like Waitrose. It reaffirms your belief for the community so it is fantastic in that regard.

“We’ve had support from everywhere, from Nepalese restaurants donating meals to Turkish supermarkets giving us loaves.

“And the more we can get in the more we can help other aid organisations and help keep the elderly isolating at home, which is the biggest thing I think we can do to keep the hospital well-resourced.

“Everybody wants to find a way to help, that’s the amazing thing. Artists are raising funds via GoFundMe while people who make fudge for a hobby are bringing it in. People want to put smiles on these people’s faces.”

Help Lewisham Hospital contacts supermarkets every day to organise collections of food that would be otherwise dumped. Then volunteers collect it and offer it out to NHS workers.

Through a contact centre at the Point, NHS heroes – often worn out after a shift – can avoid the busy supermarkets and get their essentials along with much, much more, from donations collected by the volunteers.

Smith said: “It’s not just a food distribution place, people come and get some respite. We are seeing 200 members of staff a day. It’s become an important place for staff to go. We are pretty amazed at how its been embraced. It’s amazing.”

Commons, who has community links through her decades of living in Lewisham, is hands-on down at the Point – while Smith has taken on the digital responsibilities and also organises the collections and deliveries from supermarkets.

On top of supporting local hospital workers, the group is also donating van-loads of food to other organisations, such as a church in Norwood that is serving 100 vulnerable families a day.

Smith and Commons have orchestrated all of this – in little over three weeks – as well as raising over £16,000 that will go towards a hospital relief fund once the crisis starts to fade.

The cycle courier, who has some experience having supported his mum’s charity in Gambia for 16 years, said: “We can now use our GoFundMe of £18k, we are spending what we need so that there will always be essentials for the staff. We don’t want to touch too much of it – we are using the social media side to push businesses to support us. We have had really good responses, we had a supplier of Aldi give us 5,000 ready meals, and Innocent has donated 4,000 smoothies.

“I am pushing as much as possible that we don’t spend it on things we can get out of businesses. It can go into a welfare fund for the hospital. There will be an exhausted and depleted health service once this is all over. Their workers aren’t on enough to live in London so it will be nice to leave a legacy where people who need extra support can find something.”

‘People calling in tears’

Laurence Smith with Lewisham Hospital staff
Smith wants to create a lasting legacy for the hospital

So far the network has 20 volunteers working day to day with another 50 ready to step in.

Plans are in the works to establish a food box delivery service, now that Lewisham Council has stepped in to offer Place Ladywell for volunteers to organise themselves.

As well as the drive to support thousands of NHS workers in Lewisham, volunteers are helping vulnerable residents who are self-isolating by guiding them towards the right assistance.

The people volunteers have helped include an 80-year-old woman who was told to self-isolate – but did so with dwindling supplies and no one to help. She lived on pea soup for three days. A second elderly woman in a similar situation was surviving on cornflakes.

Smith said: “We’ll be giving her a spare smartphone with data so I can do a joint call with them so they have each other.

“When I got into this it was about vulnerable people, and in those first two weeks the stories that came in demonstrated the neglect in this society we have built for ourselves.

“It was very disturbing but it was also the most rewarding thing – you have these people calling in tears ashamed of asking for help, people told to isolate for two weeks who had no contact thereafter, living in dwindling supplies.

“It really shows how abandoned people have become and how desperate the situation was. I hope society doesn’t go back to the way we had it.”

Help Lewisham Hospital can be supported via GoFundMe. You can also give items via its Amazon wishlist.

TOM BULL is a freelance journalist and former local democracy reporter in SE London. We have been able to commission him to write for us because of the generosity of people who fund 853 with monthly memberships. Thank you to all who have helped.

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