When I was elected to Pembrokeshire’s Letterston ward in 2017, my campaign leaflet said we needed “strong, resilient communities”. Never has this resilience been tested as much as in the past year.
I’m proud of the villages in my ward because although they are quite different, they are all friendly, thriving, and full of people who make things happen.
Villages are ecosystems that rely on a delicate balance between their residents and their roles within it: the reliable cake makers, the great raffle ticket sellers, the organisers and the stalwarts who quietly take a back seat in planning but diligently attend any community event.
When COVID-19 took hold, it shook up those ecosystems and redefined roles.
Those who previously were busy with jobs found themselves furloughed; those retired residents with bustling social calendars found themselves confined to their houses; and those who were usually the first to offer support to those in need found themselves needing help.
It quickly became clear that a coordinated, intelligence-led, and well communicated response was needed across Pembrokeshire. I had faith and confidence in the people within my ward to step up to the challenge, but when I set up three volunteer groups the response was incredible.
What started as a few Facebook messages offering help almost overnight became a spreadsheet of emails, phone numbers and skills. People weren’t just willing to help, they actively wanted to make a difference.
“People weren’t just willing to help, they actively wanted to make a difference”
Hundreds of similar groups sprung up across the county. The Pembrokeshire Community Hub was set up by the council and its partners to link the various groups and add resilience to the response – a safety net to ensure anyone who needed it could access help.
But while I and others did collect prescriptions and help with shopping, the level of assistance required was far lower than expected. Instead, quietly, and without fanfare, people were relying on long-established and successful support networks – the foundations were already there, lying dormant until needed.
Neighbours coordinated shared shopping trips, friends set up WhatsApp groups offering to add items to supermarket deliveries, and people continued to check up on those they were already supporting.
Daily walks became an opportunity to say hello to those we knew might be lonely, and school Facebook groups turned from PE kit reminders to home-school tips.
Social media made information easily accessible, and we saw a digital revolution as people previously slightly scared of the internet embraced online shopping and Zoom calls.
Local businesses became the heroes, adapting overnight to offer deliveries, covid-secure shopping, food donations or delicious takeaways.
Every prescription or bag of shopping I delivered came with views of rainbows or posters thanking those on whom we relied. There was a new appreciation for our farmers, care workers, refuse collectors, teachers and, of course, the NHS.
We don’t know what our communities will look like when we emerge from this pandemic, but I know that my ward is ready to do what it needs to rebuild.
I’ve learned that people want to be enabled to help themselves, and that at grassroots level, where it really counts, we have an army.
As restrictions lift, my role is changing from response to recovery, which means listening to how our communities have changed, and helping them shape the future that they want.