Bringing People Together With Befriended

Bringing People Together With Befriended

by Lisa De Silva

Befriended is a charity set up by Gail Millar with the aim of combating loneliness, something which affects a shocking amount of people. She tells her story to Lisa de Silva

Loneliness will affect us all at some point in our lives and particularly as we grow older. The scale of the problem is vast with around nine million people thought to be affected in the UK. While there is no simple solution, getting involved in the befriending programme developed by local charity Befriended is one way to help make a difference.

If you have been affected by this issue and would like to help those feeling isolated and you have an hour to spare each week, Befriended would love to hear from you. Founded by Gail Millar, Befriended aims to reduce the impact of loneliness on people’s lives by matching volunteers with those hoping to be befriended. Naturally compassionate, Gail was moved to set up the charity by both her own experience of loneliness and the need she saw around her.

“I’m passionate about making a difference to people’s lives, particularly those who are disadvantaged in some way,” she tells me. “If there is anything that I can do to make someone’s life better, I’ll do it.”

Gail has first-hand experience of loneliness having moved down to Mid Sussex as a single mum to three young children. “Although I was surrounded by people, I often felt lonely,” she confesses. At the time, Gail was working for the Torch Trust, a Christian organisation set up to help the blind and partially sighted. She was instrumental in reviving the trust’s Holiday & Retreat Centre in Hurstpierpoint, which she ran for 20 years and during that time the awareness of loneliness became an increasing issue.

“What I learnt working with blind people is that sight loss was not the common denominator, it was loneliness,” Gail explains.

A self-confessed pioneer, when it was time to move on from the Torch Trust, Gail and co-launcher Helen Watkin decided to rise to the challenge. Already part of a small community group that met each week to pray and support local people, the problems of feeling isolated and lonely, particularly among the older population were all too apparent.

“Much of my time was spent chatting to people who went from week to week without having a conversation with another person and I knew this was something we could help to address,” she says.

With the support of local churches, the council and the wider community, Gail founded the Befriended charity, with an aim to match volunteers with those wishing to be befriended to facilitate genuine friendships. Clients are recommended by local churches, doctor’s surgeries, neighbours or family members unable to visit relatives as much as they would wish. After an assessment visit by Gail and/or Helen and her team, each client is matched with a volunteer and an initial meeting is arranged.

If all goes well, the pair enjoy weekly visits and hopefully build up a friendship which enriches them both. Volunteers are also encouraged to take their clients to a club or activity to try to get them re-engaged in the community. All volunteers are DBS-checked and have 4-5 hours of training to help prepare them, focusing on shared activities such as puzzles, looking at old photographs, playing games or going out for coffee. “Our aim is for people to become real friends during their weekly visits and when this happens, which it often does, it is so heart-warming for all involved,” says Gail.

Befriended also run social events and have just celebrated their first anniversary with a large tea party at St Paul’s College. “We had dancers, a fire eater and live music!” says Gail.

To combat loneliness on what can be the loneliest day of all, Befriended, with another local charity, Hope (www. buildinghope.org.uk) hosts a lunch on Christmas Day and Gail would like people to spread the word and refer anyone to them who might like some company and a lovely Christmas dinner. The lunch is free of charge, although people are welcome to donate if able to. Befriended runs on a voluntary basis and is funded by donations and a small amount from the council to pay for Befriended’s administrator, Joy Dawes.

Having spent a year researching and setting up the charity, Gail has developed a model which she hopes can be adopted by other communities. “I’m very proud of what we’re doing and hope that one day every community has a befriending scheme. But as we grow, we need more volunteers. So, if anyone has a spare hour a week, it might be a young mum, an empty nester or a student, do get in touch. You’re welcome to take your kids along and may even find they adopt a new grandparent.”

A strong community is the foundation for a good quality of life, so even if you cannot spare your time, maybe you can donate or fundraise for Befriended. Gail also urges us all to show an interest in our neighbours. “We all have the ability to be kind and we all want to live in communities where kindness is present, so do smile and chat to people as you go about your day. Just little things like this can make a big difference to those who may not speak to someone from one day to the next.”

We all need the comfort, support and companionship of friends, so if you can help give the gift of friendship and have an hour a week to spare, do contact Befriended.

Telephone: 0300 772 7703

Website: www.befriended.org