BEFRIENDING schemes are nothing new, but there’s something a little different about Doncaster’s b:friend, which has just received £100,000 from the Government's loneliness fund to expand across South Yorkshire.
It was founded by someone who had first-hand experience of being lonely - 33-year-old Mike Niles - and has harnessed the power of social media to reach out to a new generation of volunteers.
Two years ago, Mr Niles was moved by the murder of Batley MP Jo Cox to leave an unsatisfying job in journalism in London to return home to Doncaster to set up the charity, after experiencing himself how much of a difference a befriending relationship could make.
Alone in the capital, the pace of life had left him feeling isolated, and he’d connected with a 73-year-old woman through a befriending charity, and saw how mutually beneficial the relationship was.
Mr Niles said: “What struck me was that she became as an important part of my life as I was in hers. I was in London, in my 20s, and wanted some connection with the community. You change jobs, you change home, you change partner - she became my constant.”
The generational gap is something that is replicated in many of b:friend’s 130 befriending pairings. As well as connecting people on a one-to-one basis, it also holds seven social clubs with activities as broad as street dance to graffitti, and trips and is expanding its outreach work.
B:friend started out with a “low-key social media” which soon resonated with people, Mr Niles said, promoting the volunteering applications “to flood in”.
As well as self-referrals, people now come to b:friend via GPs using social prescribing, and it still gets a lot of new interest via word of mouth.
Mr Niles said: “We didn’t have a fancy marketing scheme, but we went down the approach of asking our befrienders to take a selfie and post it on social media - Joe Public would see it and see something that they could achieve. People think of volunteering as something huge... bucket shaking, taking up all your time - but this is just an hour a week, after you’ve dropped the kids at school, or after work.
“Most of our volunteers are in their 30s and 40s but our youngest is 18 and eldest is 81 - and there’s no difference in commitment level.”
At one of b:friend’s social club’s at Thorne Older People’s Welfare Centre, former nurse Susan Lane, from Hatfield Woodhouse, has been volunteering since retiring. She said: “The first few weeks, it’s great, it’s like being on holiday, but for me, you lose your identity, your purpose, your status.”
For volunteer Rob Jeffrey, from Thorne, a former insurance rep, it’s the same. He said: “We get as much out of it as they do. I couldn’t sit at home on my backside - I enjoy it.
“Some of the people don’t get out other apart from when the bus comes to pick them up for the club, that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Olive Brown, 83, tells how the group has made “such a difference” to her life after she lost her husband two years ago.
“I was married for 62 years, so it was a terrible time for me. I was so lonely, especially during the dark nights,” she said. “Now I’m getting out, meeting people, and I can’t get out the house quick enough when they come for me.”
Jean Williams, 89, of Thorne, also attends the group and is visited by a befriender.
“Sometimes we go out and do a bit of shopping, sometimes we just stay in and chat - she always spends longer than the hour she’s supposed to,” Mrs Williams said. “Without her and the club I wouldn’t see anybody.”
Mr Niles added: “It’s a basic human need, whatever age, to feel love and to feel part of something. So many isolated older people have lost that.”
Using technology to build connections
A £100,000 grant from the Building Connections Fund will see b:friend expand out of Doncaster for the first time, using innovative technology to map demand and volunteer availability to match befriending pairings.
“This kind of mapping is the first of its kind in the country,” Mr Niles said. “There’s no reason why council’s elsewhere couldn’t use the same system in their areas.
“With a new member of staff, we want to make at least 40 new pairings a year, and five new social clubs across Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Bassetlaw.