Our Story – from Little Acorns…
In the heart of rural Cheshire, a small group of volunteers who have a passion for vitality in later life, have spent the last 7 years building the charity Opal Services. The charity now offers 6 distinct services which are designed to join people together in a zest for life. This is our story.
Opal Services (Older People Active Lives) was born in 2011. Our initial purpose was to manage a number of day services for older people in 5 rural locations, providing one or two days a week support. These services were due to be discontinued by Age Concern, even though they were critical to those that used them in isolated rural areas. So, a small group of volunteers successfully campaigned to secure continuing Council funding from Cheshire West and Chester and took over responsibility for providing these services.
Our organisation was registered with the Charity Commission and Companies House and a Board of Trustees was formed, supported by a Steering Group which had enabled the new organisation to become established. We were careful in the early days to ensure there was representation on the Board or Steering Group from each of the communities the service ran in. We also forged links with all 5 Parish Councils responsible for these areas.
In the beginning, our offer was simply a day service running once a week in Helsby, Kelsall, Tarporley, Tattenhall and two days a week in Malpas. This service, has now grown over time into 6 Opal Clubs which includes the newest one in Frodsham, providing a much valued lifeline, getting people out of their houses and connecting with others for a home cooked lunch, a chat and activities.
From 2014, having grown in confidence, we started to branch out, recognising the need to diversify the provision of services to suit people’s needs.
Recognising that one of the best ways to keep people connected was through the internet, we created Opal GoOnLine Service in 2014. We saw it as a huge opportunity to prevent isolation and loneliness and to bridge the gap that often opens up when people are less able to drive and living in rural areas, rarely even see people passing by. Although internet access among retired people had doubled from 22% in 2003 to 44% in 2013, a staggering 79% of 65-74 year olds had low or no internet skills.
Opal GoOnLine Service offers older people and their carers opportunities to become more confident and competent in using the various types of communication technology – to keep in touch with family and friends and to make some practical everyday tasks such as shopping and banking easier. This service, unlike the others, is paid for by external funders, who have an interest in the value of the service for older people and their carers. In 2018 a total of 419 people accessed the service, consuming over 800 hours of volunteer support and demonstrating how important GoOnline is to the people we serve.
In 2016 we added two further services, both funded through “Brightlife“, as part of a national research project considering the significance of social isolation and loneliness for older people . Known as New Horizons and What’s Cooking, these two services successfully operate in Frodsham, Helsby and Farndon. Both aim to bring people together in informal and welcoming settings and offer opportunities for them to become involved in local community activity. Although the Brightlife funding is due to end in the summer of 2019 we actively pursuing alternative funding options for these highly successful and valued services.
As a charity our philosophy is to provide as much support as possible for those unpaid carers looking after older people in rural areas who may not be able to access Opal’s services due to their health. By maximising support for carers we want to improve the quality of life for both the carer and cared for. BreakTime offers respite breaks to those caring for people who may be highly dependant. Carers Connect brings carers who are relatively new to being a carer together with others in the same situation. As well as providing support to each other, they can also get information and access to other sources of support.
Funding for services is increasingly scarce and there’s growing competition for all potential funding streams. We couldn’t survive without our volunteers and much of the work the Trustees do is to support them to provide services that are high quality and as far as possible, individually tailored to suit the older person or their carer. We constantly ask for feedback on our services and act upon any suggestions to ensure they continue to meet people’s needs.
In 2018 Cheshire West Health Care Trust stated that as a percentage of their total population, Cheshire Rural locality has the highest proportion of older people, with 22% of their patients aged 65 and over.
At Opal Services we recognise that an ageing population is part of a national trend. We are generally living longer and healthier lives, retirement ages are increasing, and younger people are choosing to live in towns and cities, where more affordable housing is available.
As a result, the work we do through Opal Services to connect and reconnect the older generation in rural communities, is becoming ever more vital.
Part Two …. From November 2018 to March 2020 … “The months between!”
This period saw us focus on implementing our new brand and image. We also responded to the nomination we received for the Queens Award, showcasing the work of our volunteers and our organisation. We expanded our Board of Trustees and recruited some who have brought different skills and experience to the table. Changes took place in the staff team over this period too to the advantage of the organisation.
Over this time we recognised the success of certain new models of service we were offering including that which evolved from our Brightlife projects. We could see how in the future with appropriate levels of funding we might be able to roll out our Branching Out model of service more extensively and adopt this as a key way of working.
We began work on our new Business Plan and made good progress until we were all overtaken by the pandemic and forced to turn our attention elsewhere.
Part Three ….from March 2020 onwards [Covid -19 restrictions in place]
“Making sense of now and tomorrow.”
Our Aim/Mission – “To reduce social isolation amongst older people in rural West Cheshire” remains as is.
Our method of achieving our aims has changed though because we must protect the health of our members, volunteers and staff and of course we can no longer provide services where people are not socially distanced. Also, most of the venues we used to hire are closed.
What services can we no longer provide?
In March 2020 all face to face contact was put on hold. Clubs, group meets and one to one assessments were all paused. Over the last twelve months though we have adapted our services using online, telephone and written communications to provide as much contact as we possibly can, in the safest way possible.
Services including the new ones provided during lockdown (March 20 to October 20)
We’ve adapted how we provide our services using online, written and telephone communications. We held Zoom sessions for all our OPAL community – members, carers and our volunteers and these were gratefully received. Our GoOnLine volunteers adapted the way they work to provide remote support and we produced a new weekly newsletter, OPAL Reach. Activity Packs were supplied – either via post or in the form of doorstep deliveries. And in the midst of the pandemic, we also started offering the ‘Book of You’ project, OPAL being the first organisation to receive online training to do this. We also recognised and celebrated Volunteers’ Week and announced that our amazing volunteers had been awarded the Queens Award achievement.
All services we provided over this period were risk assessed to be covid safe and compliant.
We developed and introduced an interim Business Recovery Plan pending being able to return to the longer term Business plan
What services we plan to provide in the next 6 months.
Our ‘usual’ pre Covid services couldn’t restart in 2020 nor for the first half of 2021. So for this period we continued with OPAL Go On Line, telephone befriending, OPAL Reach and activity packs, doorstep and garden visits. In the next six months –commencing June – we plan to open our face to face services in line with COVID regulations. We began outdoor meet ups for members, volunteers and carers- keeping to the rule of 6 and ensuring COVID compliance. As restrictions are lifted more and more, we plan to open up our clubs and meet ups.
The financial impact of the changes in service delivery.
We’ve worked hard to obtain a fair amount of grant funds and the funding for most of our ‘commissioned’ services has continued this year. That’s just as well though as our income from member fees has been nil. Currently we’re facing a deficit of over £30,000 at the end of 20/21 but we are fortunate in having some healthy reserves to draw on.
Changes to the OPAL Structure.
We’ve adjusted our committee structure, mainly to bring what was the clubs and service committees into a single joint services committee. We increased the frequency of Trustee meetings so we could take a better overview of the frequently changing situation, consider strategic and operational issues as they arise, make necessary decisions and offer support to the staff. Trustees have tried to be aware what is happening outside the organisation so we are in a position to act quickly and influence decision making.
Changes to the way staff work
Like so many others our staff team are mainly having to work online and from home. Direct contact between individual staff is limited, though regular staff meetings take place on Zoom. Our staff have been faced with a whole new set of challenges and issues which has been demanding and unsettling. This has included risk assessing their services They have risen to these challenges and worked well as a team and individuals, all with a different skill set and experience. In order to assist staff and trustees we have introduced a new on line office system in the form of Office 365.
Staff have reported a positive effect of online working, meaning communicating and sharing about each other’s services have been more timely and has been evidence of collaboration between different services.
Changes in the trustees work.
The governance role of Trustees remains at the heart of their role, however since the pandemic a few [mainly those with line management and service oversight roles] have taken a more ‘hands on approach’ than had been the case before. This is a temporary measure and aims to offer both direction, clarity and confidence to staff in these fast changing times.
We are fortunate to have an active, committed and strong Board of Trustees
Changes in the roles of volunteers.
Volunteers remain at the heart of OPAL; this was recognised recently when we were awarded The Queens Award for Voluntary Services. However, face to face contact has been sadly limited. Telephone befriending remains a key activity and we’re looking at ways in which our Volunteer Coordinator can offer more general support and where appropriate training. We need to be ready to spring back into action once Covid 19 allows.
We’re all in this together.
Whilst Covid 19 has affected us massively as an organisation we’re all impacted personally in a range of ways and this is easy to underestimate. It’s essential that we all feel able to exchange views, ask questions and feel the support of each other at this challenging time. We need to ensure we have clarity in communication and a shared understanding of our organisational capacity as we try our best to support members, carers and each other.
We need to give ourselves a “pat on the back” from time to time!
We can be the victims of our own success and could be much better at pausing to give ourselves time for rest and celebration before moving on to climb the next hill!
Our achievements have been considerable and our standards high but we have to be realistic and clear with ourselves and others about what is possible and what and where we want to be in the future.
Part Four …. our future
Our shared assumption is that our range of personal services – Clubs, BreakTime, direct GoOnLine sessions, indeed all group or one to one services will be able to recommence by September 2021 or sooner if advances in the search for effective vaccines continues to progress. Indeed, as of June 21, we have tentatively begun small group meet ups both indoors and outdoors and are in the process of re-assessing all our venues as well as sourcing new ones.
Our current financial assumptions, which includes our contract funding continuing and us being successful in securing grant funding for our service related plans, is that we should be able to continue with the same staffing structure and resources until that point.
There will be no pay increases in 2021 and working over contract hours will not be permitted other than in exceptional circumstances and with approval.
By September 2021 we plan to have reopened the usual services and subject to available resources expand our geographical base to more villages in rural Cheshire West and, of course, subject to COVID restrictions. We would aim to extend the Branching Out model of service across other parts of our area. We also want to be able to provide a far better deal in service terms for carers than they generally receive currently.
In the months ahead.
Until we are able to return to the semblance of normality our focus will be in supporting members, both existing and new, to stay mentally and physically well, to keep people socially engaged via OPAL Reach and our Activity Packs. We will also further develop our telephone befriending and online digital services included in which will be the OPAL In Touch project. We would hope to have been able to make good use of the Malpas minibus if we are allocated funding for this and will try hard to be responsive to new and creative ideas to support and inspire people during the restrictions surrounding the pandemic.
We will also have a focus on our volunteers, their wellbeing and active involvement in our services which we will expand and develop albeit in a remote way for now. Communication with all in the OPAL community is key and we need all to understand what we are doing now and in the future. Additional priority areas of work will be in respect of fundraising activity, a focus on how people in receipt of services might contribute more to them financially and ensuring services can run and the organisation remains financially secure.