The Bee Tree Community: Fighting social isolation in Lancashire with a life-changing 'online community centre'
Clare Watson's nan Dot was out bowling with her friends when she suddenly realised she was late for her Over-60s Zoom get-together with the Bee Tree Community. Now in her 80s, Dot never misses a session and so raced home to log on. Apologising for her tardiness, she'd nevertheless made it.
The Bee Tree Community is a North West CIC which runs a varied timetable of Zoom sessions for its national network of members, all of whom are offered a safe and welcoming space in which to connect with others over shared interests. It was established by Debbie Bentley with Clare's help last November and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Targeted at those who are lonely or isolated due to any number of reasons, Bee Tree's sessions are run by experienced and passionate hosts including yoga, singing, well 'beeing' together, bingo & quiz night, knit & natter, history, family history, over-60s, book club, wordplay, art, cooking, gardening, and creative writing. Put simply, there's something for everyone.
"Pandemic or no pandemic, there are millions of people in this country who effectively live in lockdown because of chronic illness and mental health problems and I wanted to do something about that," explains Debbie. "The idea came at the start of lockdown and then Clare said she'd love to help, so that's how it all started.
"Some people will come out of this and go back to normal, but some people won't, they'll still be sitting at home waiting for visitors or something to do," she adds. "And there's a misconception that people who can't get out are boring people; our members are amazing, they just happened to have developed illnesses or conditions which mean they can't get out."
Clare agrees, calling Bee Tree an 'online community centre'. "We're not there to teach as much as we're there to facilitate," she says. "We started out with a six-week trial period and, when that finished, everyone was like 'when are you coming back?' so we put on a two-week Christmas timetable as that's the loneliest time for a lot of people and that was just gorgeous.
"A lot of hours go into it but people love what we're doing - we had a new member at the end of one of the sessions get quite tearful at how much being a part of this meant to her because she'd been in lockdown by herself," adds Clare. "She was growing in confidence and said she felt like she had friends again. It's that kind of thing which people have been missing."
With membership costing £10 per month, each group has its own WhatsApp group to enable members to stay connected, with the fact that the group enables people to socialise from the comfort of their own homes helping to combat the impacts of loneliness, isolation, mental and/or emotional distress, grief, physical illness, and trauma.
The lack of pressure on participants enables them to focus on themselves and really take the time to do something which they enjoy - an often-neglected part of well-being. Debbie and Clare - who expressed particular thanks to Craig Robinson and the UCLan Propeller Hub, who continue to offer them invaluable support, and the Our Lancashire page - are also present in each session, too.
"It's wonderful to help people and to see their confidence grow just through coming to cooking club or bingo - places where they can share their knowledge and have a laugh," says Debbie. "The feedback we get is heart-warming; people say it's given them a sense of hope back and a sense of purpose. That makes all the hard work worth it."
And it's not just members whose lives have changed: Clare says Bee Tree transformed the second and third lockdowns for her, too. "It gave me that sense of hope and purpose to be helping people," she says. "I've really enjoyed it and seeing people coming in and becoming part of the community gave me pride like nothing else in my life.
"The wider meaning behind the work gives us a lot of drive and the next step is to grow it," adds Clare. "It may take a few years, but we're not going anywhere."
Supporter Tara Humphrey is currently fundraising for Bee Tree; to donate head to https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/thebeetreecommunitycic?utm_term=EpJx7REbz