Interview with a BBBC frontline staff in times of lockdown

The BBBC Insights team interviewed a Centre’s frontline staff this week. Khadeja Chowdhury, Skills Exchange Volunteer Project Manager, Community Connections, shared her experience of supporting community members in a situation of lockdown, and let us know the learnings she takes from it.

Hi Khadeja, could you tell us a bit more about what you do at BBBC?

I manage the Time Banking Project – through which people in the community share their skills and their time, to help their neighbours sewing or gardening for example. All people are valued equally and everyone gets something back for the time they give. They can offer one hour of their time, and in exchange, take part in another activity. This gives community members a sense of community and of reward which are very important.
Normally, we meet once a week at the centre for our regular coffee afternoon. This is a space to have a chat, socialise, discuss what is going on in their lives and look at the skills exchanges that people want to do. We have a group of people who come back every week, and this allows them to be exposed to a diverse group of people within their community and to feel connected.

Some of the activities we run are group activities such as sewing or knitting! Some of the community members already know how to knit, from their mum or friends, and they teach the group. They are not professionals, but this is all about sharing, and some people then share what they have learnt to their own network! It is nice to see various generations gather for such activities too. We also have the Grandmas’ Group, which gathers regularly for breakfast!

You can download our Time Banking How to Guide here if you would like to start a similar project!

How has the pandemic affected the way you work? What specific initiatives have you put in place in the last month to adapt to the lockdown?

When the pandemic arrived, we had to change everything in the way we operate the Time Banking activities, as people were not allowed to gather anymore. The very first thing that occurred to us was that a lot of our clients do not own mobile phones, or aren’t IT savvy!

We started very early on making calls to check on people and ensure everyone was safe, and to see if anyone needed any specific help due to lockdown. This is done in partnership with the Bromley By Bow Health Partnership, with whom we identify the most vulnerable people in the community, such as our Grandmas’ Group for example. People have responded very well to those calls, and seem to appreciate the concern. Sometimes, we are the only persons who would get in touch with them for the whole day, so the calls are very important to them. Someone once told me “Your call is the light in my dark tunnel”, and this really touched me. People are becoming even more isolated in the lockdown situation and we are doing our best to help with that. Some people from our various groups actually already started volunteering to check on each other, and help us ensuring everyone was doing okay, which is great! The Mutual Aid Groups came about just like that! We are now looking at launching a “Buddy Group” – a phone befriending service – to scale up the amount of calls we can make to help with social isolation. This is due to start soon with some volunteers. Conference calls are also something we have been thinking about, but the technical aspect is always a challenge.

We also started doing virtual coffee afternoons via WhatsApp! We already had a WhatsApp group for the planning of the usual meetings, and a community member actually suggested to do a quiz there at the same time as the normal coffee afternoon. The first time, just four people took part, but then more people started to engage. Not everyone is comfortable engaging through text messages however, as it can feel strange to them as they are not used to it, or a lot is already happening in their lives and they do not have time for this. What has worked very well was when people started sharing pictures of their daily lives, their walks, their gardens etc.

What have you found most difficult?

Even with the partnership with the Health Centre, we do not have enough capacity to reach out to everyone. It is very tough calling this number of people, and you cannot just shorten the call to make the most possible calls! It is about the human touch, so sometimes you end up chatting for an hour with someone, because you are the only person they will speak to for the whole day, and they need to talk.

Sometimes, it can get overwhelming hearing about other people’s sufferings. It gives them relief to speak to someone, but it is very important to stay aware of our own wellbeing as frontline workers. It is crucial to train oneself to be a listening ear, but also be able to park it at the end of the call and not worry about it the rest of the time.

It has proven very difficult and time consuming to support people with IT issues too – i.e. switching on their microphone, how to work the video, how to log in to platforms etc. There is an issue of trust between us and the clients as well in this process, as it can be stressful to receive our call and be told what to do on their connected devices. We are connecting with other providers who are able to work with community members on a one-to-one basis to coach them about the basics. We also have to learn how to use certain platforms ourselves!

Engagement is the final challenge, as normally, people come physically to the Centre, which is the first form of engagement from them. When people are at home, there are a lot of other things that can distract them or take the priority over activities such as Time Banking or other community activities.

What have you learnt from this crisis, and will this change the way you work with the community going forward?

One of the core objectives of the Time Banking project is to cultivate a sense of community for our community members, and to allow them to be good neighbours, to look out for each other. This crisis situation has made me realise even more how much people care, and this sense of community has been further highlighted as everyone started checking up on each other, and making sure their neighbours were okay. They started their own initiatives and calling each other, which is something great to see!

My main takeaway is that we need to push ourselves and others more in terms of learning IT basics! It is proving so important to be able to use online platforms to stay connected with others in those times of lockdown, and even I am learning as I have never worked in this way before. Virtual meetings and activities will be something we will keep for the long-term future, to enable people with mobility issues to keep getting involved from their home. A virtual platform alongside our usual in-person activities will be optimal!

Do you have some tips for people who do a similar job elsewhere on how to cope with the situation?

Look after yourself! You can’t look after other people unless you are well! I think it is very important to take things slowly, it is a learning curve for everyone, we need to be patient and eventually things will fall into place.

It is crucial to also seek help from your peers. Just ask! It is okay to ask for help, you do not have to know everything, no one does. In the same way, make sure you have a strong support network on a day-to-day basis.


Do you want to share your experience of working as a frontline worker too? Get in touch at