On the frontline: providing meals for the vulnerable in Durham

Since the March lockdown, Kathryn Henderson, Durham University Boat Club sport massage therapist, and team have been caring for the community’s vulnerable

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Before the Covid-19 lockdown Kathryn Henderson was busy running her own sports massage practice and café at Ryton Health Hub, a few minutes’ drive from Tyne United Rowing Club just outside Newcastle.

As sport massage therapist at Durham University Boat Club (DUBC), Kathryn (pictured above with the tray) would spend Thursdays treating the rowers and listening to any other problems they might have in their lives. DUBC Head Coach Wade Hall-Craggs would send text messages at 4am on Wednesdays and Saturdays asking Kathryn to send through a quick video of river conditions on the Tyne.

But then Covid-19 arrived.

For the last 12 weeks, Kathryn and a team of five other volunteers have been working round the clock six days a week to provide hot meals to the area’s vulnerable and housebound citizens. But the service also provides an emotional lifeline to the community’s most at-risk people, and a welcome chance for them to have a friendly chat every day.

Kathryn says: “We live in a village so there’s only a small Sainsbury’s and a small Co-op. In the first two weeks of lockdown we were getting calls from some of the more vulnerable people – and some were in tears because everything was sold out. So, I called the rugby club and they went and bought them supplies.

“We were getting reports back of people getting depressed and not being able to cope, so we then started cooking meals.

“It began with about 10 people and now it’s up to 34 – people came from Age Concern and some of the local Covid-19 groups.

“They are all vulnerable, so it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. Sometimes they’re fine, but sometimes they’re a bit depressed. I ring round everyone every day to chat to them and if some are feeling a bit low, then I tell the driver to talk to them (social distancing of course!) for a bit longer.

While most day’s meals are based around meat, gravy and vegetables, together with soup or a dessert, VE Day on 8 May prompted Kathryn’s team to go one step further, creating a special afternoon tea with sandwiches, quiches and cakes.

A local chip shop always gives us fish and chips on Wednesdays

She says: “We included a note with what was going on during the day on TV and they seemed to really like this.”

People really appreciated the thoughtfulness and effort, with a relative of one of the recipients writing on Facebook, “I’ve just been on the phone to my relative who has been receiving the meals. They have really enjoyed VE day and the wonderful spread you provided.

“They’ve asked me to say a big thank you to all involved on their behalf. They’ve been stuck at home for 61 days so far, as they started earlier. Your efforts are most appreciated and are their highlight of each day. Thank you so much.”

I’m the northern mum for the students when they’re here for their three-year courses. I really miss them!

Though Kathryn works with two people in the kitchen and three volunteers deliver the meals safely to everyone, it’s a real community effort. In all, the team need about £200 to provide meals every week and with all food either donated or bought with donations, it’s a real measure of community spirit that the service has been able to keep going for so long.

“A couple of weeks ago we really needed some money to carry on and people immediately donated. A local chip shop always gives us fish and chips on Wednesdays.”

Kathryn adds: “I was born and bred here, and I just think that these vulnerable people could be my parents. It picks them up. It’s a generation that tends to have a landline and they’re not so good with technology. There is a bit of talk about ailments sometimes, so I often end up having a mini-clinic over the phone!”

When everything returns to normal and people are free to stop self-isolating, she plans to invite them over to her café for a coffee, so they can meet each other and talk about their lockdown experiences.

And hopefully the student rowers will return to Ryton Health hub to have their ailments treated too.

Kathryn says: “The standing joke is that I’m the northern mum for the students when they’re here for their three-year courses. I really miss them!”

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