Voluntary service born out of crisis

In the latest of our series of blogs to mark Volunteers Week 2016, a busy mum tells how villagers banded together to tackle threats to their health services:  

I live in Millom, a small, isolated town on the west coast of Cumbria with around 8,500 inhabitants.

Our nearest hospital is 45 minutes away and we are an hour from the motorway.

I want to tell you about what can be achieved by volunteers when they are given encouragement, support and, more importantly, freedom from traditional boundaries to create inventive solutions to local issues.

Back in 2014 there was huge concern in the town about the possible closure of our community hospital. Within a matter of days Millom Health Action Group was formed to address this issue head on.

A protest march was organised and on 7 May 2014 over 2,500 people – almost a third of the town’s population – took to the streets in a peaceful march to demonstrate how much the hospital meant to the local people.

What became apparent in the direct aftermath of the demo’, was that issues with our health services ran much deeper. We had lost many key NHS services, leaving our community very vulnerable and in crisis.

A key issue was a shortage of doctors which was putting great pressure on our only doctor’s surgery and community Hospital. We actually had more vets than Doctors in 2014.

With a mandate from the public to act on their behalf, our group began to research local health services. None of us had any background in health or any NHS links – but what we had collectively was commitment to the future of Millom Hospital and a desire to find a resolution to the problems our local health services faced.

The agreed priority areas for the group were:

  • Millom Hospital
  • Maternity services
  • Mental health, public health
  • Out of hours’ services
  • Children’s health including disabilities.

A clear issue for our town was that we had two NHS trusts governing it. This made our work more confusing, trying to find out who had control of which services.

We called a town meeting and invited all NHS directors of Local health services to attend.

Over 500 people came and asked questions. We demanded full honesty and transparency from everyone involved and, to their credit, the NHS leaders present opted to work with us.

Many collaborative meetings followed and the idea of the Millom Alliance was created, around the concept of all health service managers and NHS decision makers that covered

Millom would be included. It initially sounded unachievable but thankfully we had everyone engaged and committed to our idea.

Once a month we met face to face and discussed the issues and work out solutions to the problems we faced.

A major issue was that we simply didn’t have enough doctors. The surgery had unsuccessfully tried to recruit for two years. Our community group came up with the idea of a community made recruitment video, free from NHS guidelines and traditional recruitment techniques.

The video was amazing – featuring local school children, local GPs and showcasing our local area. The video was released and due largely to the efforts of the community in promoting it, it received lots of media attention and gained over 8,000 hits on YouTube and was ultimately a crucial factor in successfully recruiting new doctors and saving our hospital from closure.

The steering group kept the public informed via social media and through flyer drops, but it was clear that communicating with ALL sections of the community was quite problematic.

In September 2014 a community magazine was suggested – it was envisaged that its coverage would reach beyond Millom, to cover all 13 communities around key local landmark, Black Combe. Over 13,000 people would benefit from a free eight-page community-written, black and white newsletter.

On 4 December 2014 Around the Combe Magazine was launched. The concept had grown and the first issue was a free, 28-page, full colour magazine, packed with lots of local events and information. But at the heart of the magazine were messages around health and wellbeing with significant input from the NHS.

Each village delivered to their own homes ensuring the most isolated people were not forgotten. 5,500 copies are hand delivered to over 13,000 people every month. We are now on our 16 edition and the magazine has grown to 32 pages.

Better Care Together has sponsored our heath pages for the next 12 months. It takes the three editors over 60 hours a month to produce the magazine and we do it on a purely voluntary basis. Our only outgoing is our print costs and around 100 volunteers deliver the magazine every month.

We have been told by many of our community that it is a life line to them.  This is what can be achieved by volunteers if they are given the freedom to find solutions for all their problems together.

Jenny Brumby

Jenny Brumby is a married mother of two boys and has a holiday home business in Millom.

She is one of the Editors of Around The Combe Magazine and a steering group member of Millom Health Action Group. The group works on behalf of the community with the NHS to make decisions about health services.