The kindness of neighbours: Sarah’s story

Updated 23 July 2020

Our mental wellbeing has been under strain in recent months, which isn’t surprising in light of the pandemic. 44% of the population feel lockdown measures have had a negative impact on their mental health and a quarter said the pandemic had left them feeling vulnerable[1]. Many have faced extreme hardship and most would say they have found the uncertainty difficult, yet people in our communities have responded by radiating human warmth in an outpouring of mutual care.

Stories of neighbour to neighbour acts of kindness were widespread in my Walthamstow community here in East London. Shielding or self-isolating people got help as our street WhatsApp group and hundreds like it filled with offers of aid, food and resources to share. We perpetuated emotional support through words and actions, calling and texting each other, hanging rainbow art in our windows and clapping together in the street in solidarity for key workers.

My neighbour Annette said of our group, “This wonderful neighbourhood group of ours is positive, uplifting and a font of resourcefulness. Thank you everyone for keeping me on track”. Annette felt cradled by the kindness around her, as we all did here. Many people in the UK feel they want to hang on to that care. In a recent survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics that asked what aspects of the pandemic lifestyle changes had been for the better and were worth keeping, 79% said being more in touch with neighbours[2].

When the pandemic hit, community activity mushroomed right across the globe, exposing the craving we all feel for stronger local connections. Eight million people in the UK have spoken to someone in their community who they didn’t know since lockdown began and 1 in 3 has helped a neighbour during the crisis[3].

Luckily for me, I started strengthening my bonds locally when I held my first Big Lunch back in 2014. An idea from the Eden Project made possible by The National Lottery, The Big Lunch is held each year in June, designed to help people get to know their neighbours better.

It worked. Since then, chatting and collaborating with people I know in the St James Street area of Walthamstow has become normal behaviour for me, but the pandemic has proven my long-held belief that being better connected locally is vital for everyone’s wellbeing. It’s helped us through this crisis so far – despite social distancing, a lot of neighbours have grown even closer together. We can’t let go of that.

You don’t have to look far for opportunities to improve your wellbeing then; this is about each of us seizing the opportunity to shape a happier, healthier world by getting to know people better locally. It can start with the smallest of acts. Smiling and greeting a neighbour with a friendly hello, pausing for a chat, or passing on anything you have to spare. Try it, you’ll find it can lift your mood and theirs. These simple gestures and interactions are meaningful because they are imbued with human interest, helping to nurture new and long-term relationships with kindness.

Through the pandemic, we’ve collectively been granted a huge learning experience and permission to act. It came as a revelation at a time of crisis for some, but the lesson is not to undervalue neighbourliness or the impact of informal local support. We will cope better in the face of challenges if we embrace change and learn to support each other in our neighbourhoods more.

Visit the Eden Project Communities website or follow @edencommunities on social media.

Good Thinking’s tips for community action

  1. Start small – ask your neighbours how they are and if they need help with anything. If there’s a Nextdoor group in your neighbourhood, that’s a good way to find out who lives nearby and what’s going on. A friendly smile or lending a hand with gardening or shopping could make a big difference to someone, especially if they are shielding, self-isolating or simply nervous about the COVID-19 lockdown being relaxed.
  2. Join a neighbourhood group – as well as Nextdoor, there are lots of organisations across London you could be part of. Check your local council website or newsletter or speak to your local faith group, sports club or community centre. You might also find the COVID Mutual Aid website useful.
  3. Give your time – find out if there’s a local community group your family could volunteer for, whether it’s street clean-ups, buddy programmes or something else. Check out the Team London and Do It websites.
  4. Get inspired – as lockdown is eased, there might be more opportunities to get out and about in your neighbourhood. Take a look at this Eden Project Communities article about 10 lovely things you can do in your community this summer and join their free online workshops.
  5. Understand the benefits of being kind – read Good Thinking’s article about five ways to good mental wellbeing and the Mental Health Foundation’s blog about kindness.

[1] Figures based on an online survey of 4,000 adults living in the United Kingdom, commissioned on behalf of The Big Lunch and conducted by market research company OnePoll.

[2] Figure taken from ONS research ‘Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain: 26 June 2020’. Stats based on 2,500 sample population of adults.

[3] Figures based on an online survey of 4,000 adults living in the United Kingdom, commissioned on behalf of The Big Lunch and conducted by market research company OnePoll.