Friends in need – Ross Bentley meets a Suffolk charity which loves helping the lonely
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Suffolk charity The Befriending Scheme recently celebrated 25 years helping vulnerable and lonely people across the county. As Ross Bentley discovered, its services are needed today more than ever
The day I visit The Befriending Scheme, there is a general sense of excitement at the Sudbury headquarters. I’m there to meet a number of people who have benefited from the hard work of the charity and to interview its inspirational chief executive, Shirley Moore.
It’s now more than 25 years since Shirley first began providing opportunities for people with learning difficulties to make friends and develop a more enriching social life. Her aim was to bring people together – linking people with special needs with volunteers, with a view to them meeting regularly. Fast forward a quarter of a century and what started as a part-time job in West Suffolk has now become a respected county-wide charity that has helped thousands of people to lead more fulfilling lives.
Today, the remit of The Befriending Scheme has been extended. Its work involves finding friends not only for those with learning difficulties, but for other vulnerable adults in society, such as those with mild mental health issues or the elderly. As well as providing a one-on-one matching service, the charity now also runs a number of weekly ‘hubs’ in Sudbury, Haverhill, Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, Ipswich and Lowestoft where members are able to socialise and form friendships.
“Although the original vision of providing friendship opportunities and enriching lives is still very much at the core of our services, we have tried to offer bigger and better things to a wider group of vulnerable people,” says Shirley, who admits the charity has had its ups and downs.
“Even when our funding was low and at the point of running out, I never felt that the project wouldn’t survive. I was convinced that something so fundamentally important, so worthwhile and so valuable to an often forgotten group of people, had to continue.”
With growing recognition that loneliness is a serious problem in society, especially for people who are housebound or who don’t have established social networks, the services offered by The Befriending Scheme have never been more important. In the past loneliness was often viewed as a trivial matter, but today it is increasingly understood to be a serious condition, which can negatively impact a person’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
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The people I meet testify to the benefits of the charity’s approach. I hear how a simple trip to the pub or an hour’s fishing can make a big difference to people’s happiness levels, and how a bit of help with a household bill can remove a lot of stress from someone’s life. Those who have become befrienders also talk about how the experience has enhanced their lives and broadened their horizons.
It’s a mark of The Befriending Scheme’s success – or maybe a sign of the times – that 25 years after it was formed more people than ever are approaching the charity in search of a companion. Shirley says the charity is looking for volunteers who can commit a few hours each month on a long-term basis. People are matched through mutual interests, such as gardening or sport, and are first introduced at one of the hub’s weekly social events to see if they get along.
At the charity’s recently renovated offices in Sudbury, I’m also shown the new kitchen training facilities, which are used to teach simple life skills, such as preparing a stir fry and slicing vegetables. For people who have never been shown these skills, this kind of support can help them develop a healthier lifestyle and become more independent.
The Befriending Scheme also provides employability training for long-term jobless people – 26 courses to 230 learners across Suffolk last year – and tackles fuel poverty through home visits. Shirley says none of this work would be possible without the dedication of the 20-plus staff and 300 volunteers who make the charity tick.
“We have a close relationship with those who come to use our services, including people who offer their services as volunteers, and this enables us to know people well and helps us to see what would be of most help to them.”
To find out more contact The Befriending Scheme on 01787 371333 or visit www.thebefriendingscheme.org.uk