page icon


Blog: How volunteers helped keep Survivors safe during the pandemic

Hannah Rae
Anne Tommerbakk, Amber McClatchey, Catriona Gotz, Maggie Brady

Before the pandemic, most of the Helen Bamber Foundation’s work depended on in-person meetings and activity groups. During a time of great uncertainty and vulnerability, especially for Survivors of trafficking and torture grappling with food poverty, destitution, risk of homelessness and strains on other support services, we needed a way of making sure our clients had the help they needed to stay safe. Volunteers stepped up and supported clients with a new programme of regular welfare calls; this innovation has proven so effective that it is now an essential feature of our services!

During the first two weeks of remote working in March 2020, as it became clear that the lockdown may be long-term, Hannah, our Community and Integration Manager, set to thinking of ways we could keep in touch regularly with our clients. The need for an increased level of regular contact was far greater than usual due to the high levels of uncertainty, food shortages, misinformation, and the significant impact all of this was having on people’s mental health. We had do to something to support every one of our clients to get the information and resources they needed to be safe and well, but with a significant caseload and limited resources ourselves, this presented a logistical challenge.

A new system

Together with Hannah, we gathered a list of 70-80 clients who were facing the sharp-end of the pandemic: those with clinical vulnerabilities to the virus, those who were struggling to access the bare essentials to get by, those facing severe mental health challenges. A group of 16 volunteers quickly sprung into action, with regular check-in calls. The welfare call volunteers provided both emotional and practical one-to-one support to our most isolated clients each week. Volunteers were not only a friendly voice to talk to, but worked hard to help clients to access food, and to organise remote GP appointments and medicine deliveries. The team of volunteers was fantastically strong, and under uncertain and scary circumstances dedicated their time to connect with our clients and support HBF.

Volunteers were a lifeline  

The clients receiving these calls during lockdown said having someone to talk to each week was very comforting and uplifting in an emotionally hard and isolating time. They said they looked forward to the moment the phone would ring each week, and really enjoyed the opportunity to have a chat as a welcome distraction from their difficult situation. Because this worked so well as a way to safeguard and support people, we kept the welfare call process up throughout the winter lockdown too.

Over the last year, the welfare calls have evolved into a multi-purpose casework team that goes the extra mile, every week, to assist our clients. The casework can include support such as registering for a GP or helping someone download and access Zoom so that they can access community groups and classes. Welfare volunteers also contact housing providers or support clients to apply for a freedom pass for transport.

Making a real difference

Volunteers have had a vital role in supporting Survivors during the pandemic. But being able to contribute in this way has also meant a lot to volunteers! Maggie, one of our welfare call volunteers, reflects on her experiences:

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was asked if I would be interested in making welfare calls to our clients. At the time I was volunteering with the Textiles Group but, as I had worked as a social worker in the past, I thought this was something I could help with.

Initially the priority was making sure our clients were getting food, but nowadays the calls are more about supporting mental health than basic survival needs, and I have developed relationships during the pandemic with several clients. The clients I started calling in March 2020 are all in a much better place and no longer need the calls, which is hugely gratifying, although it is always sad to say goodbye. For me, the best part of participating in welfare calls and casework is the feeling that I have done something really tangible to make our clients' lives a little better.

 A massive thank you to Hannah, Amber and Catriona who put together this piece, and to Maggie for sharing her experiences.