Cork and Covid: The community initiatives that kept people together while physically apart

As Cork readies itself for a weekend of remembrance, Breda Graham looks back at how some community groups in Cork came together to help each other and those most in need while the pandemic kept us physically apart.
Cork and Covid: The community initiatives that kept people together while physically apart

Phil Goodman and YOung at Heart Douglas club members on route to Kerry. Pic: Larry Cummins

WHEN Covid-19 hit and restrictions were implemented in March 2020, people in Cork and around the world were shell-shocked and struggling to find their feet in a new and daunting world.

But one of the most memorable features of those early days was the speed with which communities rallied together to support the most vulnerable The country was experiencing its first lockdown and many found it difficult to come to terms with new ideas like social distancing.

But despite the fear, confusion and worry that existed, many in the community came to the forefront in the fight against Covid-19 to provide those most affected with comfort and support.

People made face coverings at a time when there was a shortage of PPE; community gardaí ensured the delivery of essential items to those in need; Meals on Wheels provided hot meals and many sporting clubs checked in on elderly and those most vulnerable; ensuring they had adequate food and heating. Dedicated helplines gave those who were particularly lonely some company and, as the pandemic stretched from weeks to months, people ran online initiatives occupying people and keeping them active in their back gardens or in their homes.

Looking back on the past two years of the pandemic, founder of the Douglas Young at Heart Group, Phil Goodman, who received a Pride of Cork award and the Lord Mayor’s Community and Voluntary Award 2021 in the Advocacy category, said that she found peoples’ loneliness to be the most difficult thing to navigate as people were isolated in their own homes for long periods of time.

Garda Marie O’Neill checked in on Phil Goodman, coordinator for Young at Heart Douglas Seniors.
Garda Marie O’Neill checked in on Phil Goodman, coordinator for Young at Heart Douglas Seniors.

Established over 20 years ago, the main aim of the Douglas Young at Heart Group is to alleviate loneliness and isolation among the elderly in Douglas and the surrounding area.

Ms Goodman said that throughout Covid-19, her aim was to reach out to as many people in the community as possible and to provide them with skills and services to continue to live a fulfilling life. Much of this was done through the Care-Call service, run by 10 trained and vetted volunteers who make over 300 calls per week to those in the community.

“People found that very helpful and it builds up relationships with the people they’re calling and it’s lovely for them. 

"It was a contact during the dark days of Covid when they were afraid to put their nose to the door and they knew they would be getting that phone call and that we would get whatever they needed,” she said.

 Phil Goodman and Mike Kelly, both Young at Heart Douglas with the Senior Play Packs.. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Phil Goodman and Mike Kelly, both Young at Heart Douglas with the Senior Play Packs.. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The organisation is the designated group in Douglas to deliver food parcels as part of the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) initiative, something she said she “could not have done without the help of the community gardaí” in the area and is also the designated group supplying personal pendant alarms which she said are “very essential and keep people in their homes longer”.

While people are now back out in the community enjoying Tai Chi, knitting, dancing, bingo, playing cards and attending concerts, she said many are still finding it “very difficult to cope”.

“Many people have lost confidence,” she said, highlighting how peoples’ loneliness was what struck her most over the past two years.

Loneliness is a very big factor and I hate to imagine people who didn’t get a call or people who we wouldn’t know about. Loneliness is very challenging, it’s like a physical ailment. Social contact with people is so important.

Another individual who made a difference to many others during the pandemic was Denis O’Donovan, who was heavily involved in securing the latest IT infrastructure for local Deis schools in need of an upgrade and who received a Civic Award from The Lord Mayor in 2021 for his previous fundraising efforts and involvement in the community.

Before Covid-19 hit, he was involved in the Suas Educational Development working as a volunteer to help kids with their literacy and numeracy at Scoil Padre Pio in Churchfield which he was “delighted about” being from Blarney and having been a milkman up in that area of the city for a number of years.

When restrictions were implemented, the programme was pulled, which he said left “a huge void”.

 Rory McSweeney, Lexi Cotter and Darragh McCarthy, 3rd class of Scoil Padre Pio during the opening their updated computer room from the proceeds of fundraising by Denis O'Donovan and Frank Falvey, at Scoil Padre Pio, Churchfield, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Rory McSweeney, Lexi Cotter and Darragh McCarthy, 3rd class of Scoil Padre Pio during the opening their updated computer room from the proceeds of fundraising by Denis O'Donovan and Frank Falvey, at Scoil Padre Pio, Churchfield, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

He said what struck him most was to see how much interest teachers in the school had in their pupils and that one teacher in particular, Seán Barry, was more worried about what would happen to his pupils while others were worrying about Covid.

“Seán’s interest in the pupils fascinated me because we were worried about Covid and he was worried about his students so we decided we would help and in the end we were able to donate 14 Samsung Galaxy tablets and four laptops for those who couldn’t handle the touch screen.” 

The provision of the tablets allowed for students to continue with their learning and their literacy and numeracy skills from home.

Sometime later, the school’s computer room was revamped with 14 new desktops, keyboards, and computer desks.

It’s a labour of love. We love doing it and helping the kids and the feedback from the schools has been brilliant. The amount of satisfaction we got out of it was amazing.

 

"I must say, it’s amazing to deal with teachers who have so much interest in their pupils. And we were able to help there so it was great,” he said.

Mr O’Donovan, together with Frank Falvey also provided Morning Star in Ballyphehane with eight tablets and new dongles and is in the process of also putting in four new desktops.

Principal of Morning Star NS, Donal Deasy, said Mr O’Donovan’s efforts have made “a huge difference to the staff and children”.

Denis O'Donovan with his son John, daughter Sarah Murphy and baby Róisín upon receiving his award from The Lord Mayor and Mayoress. Photo: Denis O'Donovan.
Denis O'Donovan with his son John, daughter Sarah Murphy and baby Róisín upon receiving his award from The Lord Mayor and Mayoress. Photo: Denis O'Donovan.

“Provision of reliable and sufficient IT resources has resulted in better learning outcomes for the children and there is a noticeably calm atmosphere in the school as a result.

“Denis has gone above and beyond for Morning Star and we are eternally grateful. He looks for no praise or recognition but is deserving of every plaudit he gets.” While children were out of school, many of those isolating lived alone and it quickly became apparent that there were many people who could not access basic food and medical supplies.

In response, there were dedicated helplines set up to take calls from those in need, chat to people to keep them company and check in on them regularly, and to provide people with the essentials they needed.

Both Cork City Council and Cork County Council set up response forums with an aim to keep those in the community safe.

Cork’s Friendly Call service run by Cork City Partnership (CCP), where volunteers make a daily call to people living alone, saw a 27% hike in phone calls right after restrictions began.

Brenda Barry, Friendly Call development worker, Cork City Partnership, pictured in the Friendly Call Cork, Cork City Partnership Outreach office in Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Brenda Barry, Friendly Call development worker, Cork City Partnership, pictured in the Friendly Call Cork, Cork City Partnership Outreach office in Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Established by CCP in 2010 to address social isolation of older people living in Gurranabraher area of Cork City, extended to city-wide in 2011 and in the two years of living with Covid-19, the service specifically targeted people with chronic illness or anyone who could not engage in an active way in the community.

Following the impact of Covid-19 on the service, daily call numbers increased to 380 clients, an increase of over 70%, with 113 volunteers working through 2020 and 2021 and over 70 still working remotely.

The Friendly Call Minibus was also an “invaluable” resource, bringing clients to hospital appointments, visiting nursing homes, bringing people to vaccination centres and other medical appointments and assisting with local Meals on Wheels.

Speaking to The Echo, Friendly Call’s Brenda Barry described what her core memory of the pandemic was and highlighted just how important it was to have the service to check on those in the community.

There was one day when I couldn’t contact a lady, I had tried ringing her from 10am to 2pm and could not get in touch with her.

“It was very unusual that the lady did not answer. Myself and Tom, CCP Tús Supervisor, went over to check to see if everything was okay. We could see that the light was on but there was no answer when we knocked. I just had a feeling that something wasn’t right. 

"I called the Garda to say I was concerned and needed a welfare check. We then had to get the Fire Service to break in the door. When we got in the lady was unconscious on the floor; she had a bad fall.

“The ambulance was called and she was taken to CUH. She survived the ordeal. She had been on the floor overnight. She didn’t have any close contacts. 

"We were so elated that everything worked out for her and she is now in a nursing home in the city and is doing very well.” 

From phone calls to a helping hand, when people in Cork needed it most, the community was there.

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