YMCA Derbyshire chief hopeful that Covid can pave the way for social inequalities to be addressed

Published by Scott Challinor on January 23rd 2022, 10:10am

Gillian Sewell is the CEO at YMCA Derbyshire, the Derbyshire arm of the oldest and largest youth charity in the world. As was the case with many charitable entities, the YMCA mobilised its resources during the coronavirus lockdowns to help the most vulnerable. As we now look to emerge from the pandemic as a country, Gillian is optimistic that the general public will now look at social inequalities such as poverty in a new light, paving the way for positive change that will elevate the social status of many.

Speaking on the Leaders Council Podcast, Gillian began by recollecting some of the immense operational challenges that YMCA Derbyshire had to face in order to keep providing its key array of services to some of the most vulnerable in the region.

Gillian recalled: “From a Covid perspective, the challenge has been akin to trying to rebuild a plane whilst flying it. We have had to mobilise to be able to do things very differently with a number of things that have been completely out of our control. The YMCA that I manage is a housing association, a college, and a childcare provider. Every single one of those services had to remain, so we needed to keep operating but do so very differently.”

Although the Derbyshire branch of the YMCA was successfully able to continue providing its services - albeit having undergone significant changes, Gillian did not hold back in admitting that maintaining good mental heath and morale among service users and her fellow staff members was one of the most difficult challenges that the organisation faced.

“Mental heath was undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges and what we really had to do was try to get a sense of normality in place. We may have felt like we were in very different boats but in reality we were all in exactly the same storm. So, when we made the changes necessary to comply with social restrictions, we had to provide a lot of support to ensure that young people felt safe. We had to keep our staff and our 200 residents safe. We had some staff working from home as well as support workers on the frontline, so we invested significantly in health and wellbeing through digital media and technology to maintain contact online and keep morale high.

“Thanks to technology, all the lessons provided by the YMCA college went online to ensure that learning could continue. Further to that, we sent food parcels out and dropped them off at the family homes and just checked our young people were okay from a distance.”

The immense efforts that the Derbyshire YMCA put into these provisions did not go unnoticed either, after the branch was recognised with a national YMCA Covid Impact Award, an achievement of which Gillian says she and her entire team can be very proud.

“I am proud to say that YMCA Derbyshire won the national YMCA Covid Impact Award for our investment in the digital platform and interactive tablets for our young people. As well as granting access to learning resources, the technology also enabled the development of an online befriending service to combat social isolation. We addressed the isolation of community members with some of our YMCA young people giving up a combined 2,000 of their time volunteering to contact lonely members of the community, as well as helping with the sending out of food parcels to vulnerable households.

“We also increased our number of open house counsellors, invested more into health and wellbeing, delivered over 1,000 emergency food parcels and cooked more than 200 hot meals a month. All of this more than anything was to try to establish that sense of normality to keep the spirits high.”

Despite the devastating impact of the pandemic and the immense level of mitigation measures that her organisation undertook, Gillian believes that the social inequalities that Covid has exposed have shone a new light on the underlying issues within society and could pave the way for positive social change in the post-Covid world, thanks to heightened public awareness.

“It is good that we are looking at these inequalities in a new light now, and I think more people understand that we have got to stop blaming people for poverty. People don't choose to experience poverty, but we do tend to put a bit of a blame culture on why people are experiencing poverty. I think the pandemic has been a great leveller in this respect and this is a huge step in the right direction.”

Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

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Authored By

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
January 23rd 2022, 10:10am

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