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Jasmin Aziz
18 June 2021

Celebrating 20 Years of Helping Hands in Sussex

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Helping Hands, the volunteer support network for Brighton & Hove and wider Sussex. Started by Sarah Wilks. Liz Shaw and Liz Posner in 2001, Helping Hands was created on the realisation that there was a need for a non-denominational volunteer scheme to support everyone in the community. Over the last two decades Helping Hands has become a real staple of the local Jewish community, and the commitment of their fantastic team of volunteers has allowed the service to continue to grow. The service is run entirely by volunteers from the Sussex community and a Board of Trustees.
We interviewed Helping Hands Coordinators Liz Shaw and Sarah Wilks, to find out how they’re planning to celebrate this exciting milestone and to share their reflections on how far they’ve come.
How was Helping Hands started? What was the initial goal?
Helping Hands was started by Liz Posner and ourselves just over 20 years ago, with the goal of offering a cross-communal, cohesive support group for those in need in the Brighton Jewish community. We have a clear memory of sitting together in Sarah’s lounge at the beginning and holding a mobile phone, just listing all the people we could approach who might want to help. It’s amazing to think how much we’ve grown since then! Our goal was to create a service that was accessible and open to everyone.

How has Helping Hands had to adapt over the last year with Covid-19?
The last year definitely made us think outside the box more than we usually would. We quickly had to adapt to figure out how to keep in touch with our clients and ensure they could still feel connected to the community. The sudden change in not being able to visit our clients at home was a big challenge, and we worried massively about social isolation.

During this time of crisis we joined forces with the Sussex Jewish Representative Council to create a ‘Community Support Network’. We immediately increased our phone volunteer team to offer a way for people to keep connected, and introduced our ‘Happy Shoppers’ initiative where volunteers delivered shopping to those who were vulnerable. Plus, we started regular food deliveries to our clients including deli suppers, afternoon teas, sweet treats and soup, which we couldn’t have done without the help of our amazing team of volunteer drivers. It was amazing to see our volunteers build wonderful relationships with those they helped in the last year. We’re definitely proud of our team for doing the best they could in a difficult time!
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Sarah (left) and Liz (right) in action preparing dinner deliveries for their clients around Brighton & Hove.
How many people have Helping Hands managed to help over the last 20 years?
Over the last 20 years we estimate there have definitely been thousands. Since the start we’ve always had a consistent list of over 150 clients per year plus many one-off clients. So, if you consider that over 20 years - it really adds up! It’s touching to realise that over the years we’ve been there to support multiple generations in our community. It’s also difficult to keep track as over time our clients have built incredible relationships with volunteers that have actually turned into offshoot volunteer networks! This kind of impact is more difficult to track. We’ve been incredibly lucky with our committed volunteers who often go over and above the call of duty, particularly those who joined us during lockdown to support us in a time of crisis.

How are you planning to celebrate this 20-year milestone?
We’re very excited to mark our 20th birthday! We have put together a ‘Helping Hands 20’ project group to plan how we’re going to celebrate, and have lots of plans in the works. We’re aiming to celebrate this milestone with our first physical event since lockdown on 5 December, and the whole community is invited. Another way we’re celebrating is by sharing Helping Hands news articles from the year 2001 up to 2021 in the Sussex Jewish News Magazine. We’ve been keeping a scrapbook over the last 20 years with all our news cuttings and we’re excited to share them. Stay tuned to hear more about our plans to celebrate by following us on Facebook.
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How can people get involved in your big anniversary?
We’d love people who have either volunteered for Helping Hands or been our clients (or even family of those we’ve helped), to please get in touch with us to share any stories and memories as we’d love to hear them. You can also make a donation on our website that will go towards supporting those in need in our community, and we’re also looking for digital help. We want to put together a video with messages from volunteers and clients to mark our anniversary, so if you have any experience in filming, editing or anything digital that can help, we’d love to hear from you!
Can you tell us about some of the most rewarding moments in your time as Helping Hands Coordinators?
Some of the most rewarding memories for us have been watching individuals in our community who we least expected, step up to volunteer with the most astonishing devotion and diligence. Another big highlight for us was when we won the first Mitzvah Day prize in 2011; it was a really proud moment for the whole team. It was also amazing when we raised the funds for our two community busses, which has helped us offer even more support to our clients.

When we step back to reflect on what makes our work so rewarding, we think about all the clients we’ve helped who have lived incredible and interesting lives. We feel that our involvement with Helping Hands has been as rewarding to us and our amazing volunteers in the giving, as it has been for our clients in receiving.